By CHRIS WILLIAMS
ELY, Minn. - A forest fire that smoldered for nearly a month on the Minnesota-Canada border before exploding this week to cover nearly 160 square miles is laying bare old disagreements over the best way to manage wildfire.
The Pagami Creek fire started small on Aug. 18 with a lightning strike in the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As firefighters have struggled to rein it in this week, some residents of small towns south of the fire zone have complained that the U.S. Forest Service should have snuffed it when it would have been far easier.
"When it started, they should have put it out right away," said Vera Kuehl, 83, of Finland, as she ate lunch at the Stony River CafDe in Isabella, a town of fewer than 200 people less than a dozen miles from the fire's edge.
A second straight day of favorable weather had the fire mostly at a standstill again Thursday, with a cold front that brought snow flurries and let firefighters attack the blaze directly, and little more than a quarter-mile advance was expected to the eastward, away from development.
Friday's forecast called for warmer weather, but winds from the south that would push the fire away from towns. The weekend forecast called for thunderstorms that could bring soaking rains - or new lightning strikes.
In Ely, a town that serves as a main jumping-off point for canoe campers entering the Boundary Waters, the Forest Service's handling of the blaze in its early days has been a hot topic of customers at Front Porch Coffee & Tea Co.
"In hindsight, you've always got people second-guessing the Forest Service, but the Forest Service was just following its policies," said Doug Scheiber, a co-owner of the shop.
Mary Shedd, a spokeswoman for the firefighting efforts, said she understood the frustration, but explained that when a fire starts naturally the Forest Service can choose to let it burn as long as the public is not in danger.
In this case, the fire was in a remote area northwest of Ely and the Forest Service's models predicted it would burn slowly and stay in the federal wilderness - away from private property. Then it surged east faster than anyone expected, Shedd said. Maps showed more than 8,000 acres of the fire was outside the protected wilderness Thursday.
Ray Churack, 67, of Little Marais, stood by this week as Shedd explained the Forest Service's decision with the help of several large maps taped to the wall of a community center in Isabella. He seemed satisfied.
"In a situation like this I'm sure that you're receiving criticism," the retired school principal told Shedd. "But you would have received kudos" if the fire had behaved as predicted, he said.
Lee Frelich, a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota, said wildfires are necessary for a forest to regenerate. Frelich also said it's not clear that the Pagami Creek fire could have been put out even if the Forest Service had tried.
"It would be a bad idea to try to extinguish all of them," Frelich said.
Frelich said most such fires run their course without becoming a problem.
Tess Dornfeld, an employee at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters about 8 miles east of the fire, said the business could lose $25,000 to $30,000 from canoe campers who had to cancel their trips. Yet Dornfeld said fires come with the territory.
"We know it's just a risk that comes with being here and we know the forest service has made decisions they might rethink later, but they've done the best that they can," she said.
About 500 firefighters were on the scene, including new arrivals from the Rocky Mountains to take over management of the day-to-day fight, and about 100 "hot shot" firefighters from Arizona.
The Arizona firefighters were being quickly trained in water safety, a necessary step for working in the northern Minnesota wilderness of rivers, lakes, rocks and woods. "A lot of these people have never been in canoes before," said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.
The firefighters will camp in the wilderness at night, and work on stopping the fire by day. Like other firefighters on the front lines, they'll use chainsaws and Pulaskis, a combination ax and hoe, to clear a trench in front of the fire and then run 100-foot lines of hose along it.
A 40-pound pump sends lake water through the hose so firefighters can soak the area. It can be dangerous, Anderson said, and firefighters are always wary about injuries in the backcountry.
"It's not an easy place to extract people," he said.
So far, only a single shack owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has burned. Nearly 50 structures have been evacuated. Another 200 or so residences have been warned they might need to get out on short notice.
The last major fire in the Boundary Waters was the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million as it raced across 118 square miles in Minnesota and Canada.
Millions of trees toppled by a 1999 windstorm have long been a fire concern in the Boundary Waters, but the Pagami Creek fire was staying south of that area.
--- Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report from Minneapolis.