Listen Cathy Wurzer speaks with Jean Bergerson of the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center about the Pagami Creek fire
Calmer winds and cooler temperatures on Wednesday brought a sense of relief to those living within miles of the fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
After spreading and unprecedented 16 miles on Monday and increasing its range by more than two-thirds on Wednesday, many had worried they would soon be forced to evacuate. Instead, the favorable weather conditions led fire crews to predict the fire would spread only about a half mile on Wednesday.
"We're mighty relieved," said Bill Hansen at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte, Minn. "We were in a position where the fire could have just rolled through yesterday and the day before."
Sawbill, located about 7-8 miles east of the fire, ran its sprinkler system on Tuesday, dumping 50,000 gallons of water on the property to prevent buildings from burning down in case the fire spread.
But Wednesday, it was "back to normal outfitter work," Hansen said.
The fire had burned 101,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, said Jean Bergerson, spokeswoman with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.
But the large column of smoke had subsided, thanks to more favorable weather conditions. "That put a smile on everyone's face," she told MPR's Morning Edition.
The fire started on Aug. 18 in the Pagami Creek area when lightning struck. It grew from 11,000 acres to 60,000 acres on Monday and had burned 100,000 acres by Tuesday evening.
Despite the new sense of relief among residents and business owners in the area, the fire was still wreaking havoc hundreds of miles away — smoke had reached as far as Chicago, Milwaukee, Traverse City, Mich., and even north of Toronto.
Health officials warned residents in Milwaukee, Chicago and surrounding areas that the air was unhealthy for sensitive groups, including people with respiratory problems, older adults and children.
And fire officials warned that although they expected the fire to stay put in the next couple days, higher temperatures and stronger winds were expected by Friday.
Jim Hinds, incident commander for the fire, said firefighters will have a break from the winds for the next couple days. But for the long-term, the situation was much less certain.
About 300 firefighters were working to contain the blaze, with five expert wildfire crews from the West on their way. Within a day, Hinds said some 500 firefighters would be working to bring the fire under control.
On Tuesday, four National Guard helicopters helped try to contain the fire. On Wednesday, Bergerson said two water scoopers and a "Bird Dog" plane to help lead waterbombing efforts were arriving from Manitoba to assist. Crews planned to use water, foam or other fire retardants to prevent the fire from getting any closer to buildings.
"We're not ready to call it controlled or contained yet," Bergerson said.
She said heavy equipment, including bulldozers, would work on the south end of the fire to establish a fire line. The southern edge is easier to access because it is outside the BWCAW. Crews were also securing the western edge of the fire close to where it first started.
The fire was the largest in Minnesota since 1918, when about 960,000 acres burned at Cloquet-Moose Lake. MPR Meteorologist Paul Huttner said the smoke plume was still thick in Chicago on Wednesday morning. He said winds could pick up again on Friday and predicted the fire could be pushed northeast into the central BWCAW.
"Given the difficult (impossible) terrain and with no major rainfall events in sight, this fire may burn largely unchecked for weeks to come," Huttner wrote on Updraft.
The fire is bigger than the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which burned more than 75,000 acres. The major difference is that the current fire has threatened few buildings so far, whereas the Ham Lake fire destroyed more than 30 structures.
Residents and businesses in the tiny town of Isabella, located just south of the fire, were still on a standby evacuation order.
Superior National Forest District Ranger Mark Van Every said 50 to 60 percent of the BWCAW was closed. Bergerson said Sea Gull Saganaga and Brule lakes remained open.
The 36 families that were evacuated on Monday night weren't expected to return to their homes Wednesday, and it wasn't immediately clear whether they would be able to return Thursday either, Bergerson said.
While monitoring the initial fire in the Pagami Creek area, authorities never expected it to grow and spread so rapidly just a few weeks later.
"[It] moved very little for the first 10 days, and then we got weather that was much warmer than either was forecast or we normally get at this time of the year, along with high winds that switched around during the day," Bergerson said. "It wasn't anything that we were anticipating."
(MPR's Tim Nelson and Melanie Sommer contributed to this report.)
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