There's a silver lining to the smoky cloud billowing over the 147-square-mile Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: The roughly 600 firefighters wrestling with the conflagration have created an unintended economic boost in nearby Ely.
Restaurants and wilderness outfitters have provided meals and canoes for firefighting crews heading out into remote sections of the fire. Retailers are selling clothing and cold weather gear. Aircraft fuel sales at the local airport are reportedly up 40 percent because of the influx of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft fighting the fire.
Still, merchants such as Voyageur North Outfitters owner John O'Kane are worried. He's starting to see a drop-off in customers bound for camping trips this year, mostly because of the campfire ban imposed after the wildfire grew dramatically last week. And he's even more concerned about future business. The fire burned an untold number of campsites in the Boundary Waters, and he says those sites probably won't be safe to use again for many years.
"I'd like to go in there and see how it looks, but they're not going to let people in probably until next spring. My worry is next year, when there are less permits available and less people coming up because these areas are closed down," he said. "We're going to see long-term effects for the next 10 years, I'm sure."
Voyageur North customer Shawn Roberts of Brainerd said he and some friends had permits for the popular Lake One area east of Ely, but that permit was cancelled because of the fire. Instead they'll be hitting an entry point to the west.
That's fine with Roberts. "We don't care if we have a fire or not, and now we get to go to a place that I wanted to go last time we were here," he said.
And while officials with the Forest Service say they haven't yet been able to assess the damage to campsites, Ely district ranger Mark Van Every says he doesn't think the destruction will stop people from visiting the Boundary Waters. He says the opportunity to watch the forest rejuvenate itself may even attract some visitors.
"As we've seen in other areas, whether it's Yellowstone in 1988 or the Ham Lake fire and the Cavity Lake fire on the Gunflint corridor, things will be different. They won't look the same as they did in the past, but they will recover, and they'll recover relatively quickly," he said.
Aided by cool and damp weather, firefighters made progress over the weekend on the massive blaze, which is now 19 percent contained. And so far, no homes and businesses are threatened. But the winds are expected to pick up Monday in the Boundary Waters, which could complicate firefighting efforts.
But the specter of potential Boundary Waters visitors planning trips elsewhere makes merchants worry — and welcome the economic boost from the firefighters in the short term.
Matthew Roderick, who owns the Chocolate Moose restaurant in downtown Ely, says all those extra people have made the town a busy place, and provided a boost to lots of businesses including restaurants like his.
He says that in a town that depends on tourists, "Vacancy signs haven't been seen since the fire started."
BWCA FIRE MAP
The icons contain photos of the burn area before the fire started. The icons show closed entry points. The icons indicate entry points that are still open to use as of Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.
View Pagami Creek fire in a larger map