Residents of Ely are regrouping after an extremely close call Thursday after a wildfire burned to within a couple hundred yards of the Iron Range town's southeastern edge.
Firefighters are still battling the blaze, which has spread to more than 200 acres and threatens to grow even more in today's high winds.
Residents are praising firefighters for their quick and effective response. But concerns remain about communication during the fire and potential damage to the town's important tourism industry.
The blaze started Thursday afternoon when a power line snapped and fell on dry grass and trees. Winds gusting to 30 miles per hour quickly drove the fire toward Ely, right toward the home of Dick and Nancy Rodich.
"I went up into the house, and the next thing I knew, the Forest Service was here, you're out of here," Dick Rodich said.
"I had been downtown doing an errand, and when I came back they wouldn't even allow me up the driveway," Nancy Rodich said.
The Rodiches grabbed some cash and hopped back in the car to drive to a relative's house. They still haven't been allowed to return to their home, along with several other households along Highway One.
But the fire left their houses untouched. Today, they stand like islands of green among blackened trees. Several aircraft stationed near Ely began dropping large buckets of water on and around the homes within minutes after the fire started. Officials say that likely prevented them from being destroyed. The official count says three outbuildings were lost.
At a community meeting at Vermillion Community College Thursday evening, residents applauded the firefighters' success at saving the town. But some, including Ely business owner Richard Watson, raised questions about how information is shared with the community, and exactly who is in charge of letting residents know when they can return to their homes.
Watson owns a website called elyminnesota.com, and Lutefisk Technologies, an internet technology company.
"I think there does need to be some work on systems to get information out quicker, that would be helpful," Watson said.
Friday morning at the Front Porch coffee shop in downtown Ely, several longtime residents sipped coffee and rehashed the previous day's close call. Gail Sheddy, owner of the A Taste of Ely restaurant, said people in town gawked at the thick smoke and aircraft buzzing overhead.
"People were out on the streets, people were on the top of buildings, people were parked on the side of the road," Sheddy said.
Several news outlets, including MPR News, cited reports that homes had been destroyed. That coverage concerns Bill Forsberg, owner of Timber Trail Lodge and Boundary Waters Outfitters and President of the Ely Chamber of Commerce.
"The feeling was that the media was overplaying the fire to the extent that the people hearing it in the news were concerned whether they should come to Ely, cancel their vacation," Forsberg said. "The Chamber yesterday was responding to a lot of those type of phone calls."
"We were probably looking at 150 phone calls in a very short period of time," said Linda Fryer, administrative director of the Ely Chamber of Commerce. She said none of those callers said they were canceling their trips.
Rose Johnson, owner of the Paddle Inn, said wildfires, like last year's giant Pagami Creek Fire, can actually be good for business. Her motel was booked full Thursday night with a firefighting crew.
"This fire happened at the start of our business season, so it helped this whole town," Johnson said. "Last year's fire came at the end of the season, so it helped the town, and this town pulls together pretty good."
Johnson said restaurants reopened after 10 p.m. Thursday to feed firefighters coming off the lines.
The concern now is whether those firefighters might be needed more this year. Tom Schackman, acting-West Zone fire management officer for the Superior National Forest, said the region is returning to extreme drought conditions.
"Normally we'd be going into green up now, meaning the leaves are popping, the grass is greening up," Schackman. "That's happening, but we haven't had rain, so all that vegetation is drawing moisture from the ground, and actually creating a dryer condition for us."
Another wildfire ignited near Aurora yesterday, Schackman said.
Firefighters were able to keep that blaze to under an acre in size. But without more rain, this week could be a sobering sign of more fires this summer. With that in mind, the US Forest service will limit campfires to between 7 p.m. and midnight in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, effective tomorrow.