Rain, cooler temperatures and even a few snow showers helped more than 300 firefighters on Wednesday as they continued to struggle to get a handle on the Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It has now burned 100,000 acres, or about 160 square miles, and remains uncontained.
Firefighting crews from around the region and as far away as New Jersey, Montana, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and California have converged on the BWCAW. They are focused on securing the western edge of the fire, and on preventing the blaze from spreading further south out of the wilderness area toward the tiny town of Isabella where more than 100 residents stand ready to evacuate. Crews there are hand-digging and bulldozing fire lines, and connecting them to roads and natural fire barriers including lakes and rivers.
"At this point with a fire this size, there's things that we can do to slow the spread, to try to prevent it from going in certain directions, but beyond that we're going to need some help from the weather," said Superior National Forest District Ranger Mark Van Every.
The Pagami Creek blaze is now the largest of its kind for the region in about 100 years. But it didn't grow appreciably in size on Wednesday, and incident commander Jim Hinds said he hoped to be able to declare at least some containment by Wednesday night.
"It only takes one tree," he said. "If it goes up in flames and throws sparks across the creek, the game's on again, so we're cautious about calling something safe and contained until we actually feel comfortable with it."
A CLOSE CALL
Winds approaching 40 mph on Monday drove the fire much faster and farther than forest officials had anticipated -- nearly 18 miles in one afternoon.
Worried that visitors to the wilderness area might be trapped by the approaching fire, six rangers began paddling down Insula Lake to warn campers to evacuate, Van Every said. But they soon found themselves hamstrung by the very fire they were warning others to avoid.
"They realized they needed to get to a safer spot, and so they got in their canoes, traveled north on the lake, he said. "It became very smoky, very difficult to see," and winds in front of the fire whipped up dangerously high waves.
"Some of the individuals actually got in the water, and deployed their fire shelters over the top of them," Van Every said. Others made it to a small, rocky island and took cover for about an hour in small emergency tents made of a Kevlar and aluminum fabric that reflect the heat as hot ember showers fell down around them.
The rangers felt the intense heat of the fire, but they made it out safely. Likewise, campers have been able to escape. But Van Every couldn't say exactly how many were evacuated -- only that it's a large number. Officials estimate that about 50 percent of the entry points to the BWCAW are now closed.
FEW CANCELLATIONS, FOR NOW
Despite the wildfire filling newscasts and newspapers, and smoke filling the sky as far to the east as Michigan, canoeists still continue to come to the BWCAW, and officials say the phone has been ringing off the hook at the Superior National Forest office in Ely. Campers want to know if their entry points into the wilderness are still open. (Many are not. See below for a map of open and closed entry points.)
Maggie Whiting with the Superior National Forest said very few people have cancelled their trips. Most have moved their trips into other parts of the wilderness area.
John Schiefelbein, who owns North Country Canoe Outfitters in Ely, said he hasn't had any customers cancel. But he's more concerned about next year.
"I think it's going to get a lot of bad press. 'Oh, the Boundary Waters burned up, just like when the Gunflint Trail fires happened'" in May 2007, he said.
Van Every said the fire's damage varies in different areas of the wilderness, and that campers' favorite spots might not necessarily have burned. Still, there's a good chance many visitors next year will be faced with change.
"It's a difficult thing for those of us who have a favorite camping spot or a favorite lake because it now looks different than it did for our lifetime, and it's different than it will look probably for the rest of our lifetime," he said. "But it is part of that natural process."
A natural process that is still raging out of control.
The forecast the next couple days calls for rain and cooler temperatures. But the long-term predictions are for warmer, dryer conditions and stronger winds.
The icons show closed entry points. The icons indicate entry points that are still open to use as of Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.
View Pagami Creek fire in a larger map