Pawlenty surveys wildfire in northeast Minnesota

Black smoke
This plume of black smoke is the sign of a still-active fire burning near the Gunflint Trail. The Ham Lake fire started Saturday and has burned three dozen structures and more than 25 square miles.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

(AP) People whose property went up in smoke in one of Minnesota's most damaging wildfires in years were supposed to get their first look at the damage Tuesday. Then, the wind shifted.

Several residents had been escorted up the roadblocked Gunflint Trail before access was cut off in the face of the resurgent Ham Lake fire. The wind shift began pushing the fire eastward, a direction with more development than the mostly wild terrain to the west.

Gov. Pawlenty at Ham Lake fire
Gov. Tim Pawlenty surveyed the damage from a wildfire in northeast Minnesota that has burned over 25 square miles and destroyed three dozen structures. The governor met with area residents and fire officials at a command center on Gunflint Lake and offered his condolences to those who had lost homes, and pledged the state's full support for the firefighting effort.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"We just got everyone out of there," said Gil Knight, a spokesman for the team managing the firefight. "It's just way too dangerous."

Water-dropping aircraft attempted to beat back the new flames, which have burned over 25 square miles and destroyed around 40 structures ranging from sheds to multimillion-dollar lake homes. At least one other structural loss was reported Tuesday. No one has been reported injured in the blaze.

Several new smoke plumes rising hundreds of feet into the air and pine trees going up in flames could be seen along the Gunflint Trail near Round, Sea Gull and Saganaga lakes. Ashes fell from the sky at Gunflint Lake, and smoke masked the sun, turning it into a pinkish orb.

Corrine and Joe Sierakowski were allowed back to their home on tiny Gull Lake between Sea Gull and Saganaga lakes just after noon. They said they had wanted stay a while and repair some sprinklers protecting their home and yard, but had to leave quickly.

Firefighters and a boat
More than 200 firefighters from across the country are on the scene at the Ham Lake fire. The fire has burned about 16,000 acres and in Tuesday was only 5 percent contained.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"We had fire a couple hundred feet from the house," Corrine Sierakowski said. "I wanted to stay and do more ... but when a helicopter is dropping water a few hundred feet away, I thought we better get the heck out of there."

After flying over the fire earlier Tuesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty met with area residents and fire officials at a command center on Gunflint Lake, including people who had been ordered to evacuate from the last seven miles of the trail on Sunday. He offered his condolences to those who had lost homes, and pledged the state's full support for the firefighting effort.

"The good thing about Minnesotans is we rally around each other every time there is a natural disaster, whether it be a fire, whether it be a tornado, whether it be blizzard or a flood," Pawlenty said. "We have an unbroken tradition of helping each other in these times of crisis and these times of natural disasters and it will happen again here."

The governor said the situation Tuesday and Monday was "a lot better than Saturday and Sunday, but we don't know what tomorrow bring ... so this is still a moving target."

The scenic Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile dead-end two-lane highway leading from Grand Marais to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and other popular, remote vacation destinations amid the forests and lakes of northeastern Minnesota. It's been an area of special concern since a 1999 wind storm knocked down millions of trees in and near the BWCA.

The charred remains
More than three dozen structures have been destroyed or damaged since the Ham Lake fire broke out on Saturday. The fire has burned more than 25 square miles but hasn't grown much since Sunday.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Authorities have conducted numerous prescribed burns since then to try to reduce the fire danger, and had to fight a couple major fires in the area over the past two summers, but this one has been rated the worst because of the property damage.

There was no rain in the immediate forecast for the area, which has been in a drought since last summer. Forecasters said it will be mostly warm and sunny with gusty winds for the next few days, though there was a 20 percent chance of showers later in the week.

Dewey Hanson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, said Tuesday that the fire had destroyed around 40 structures but another 52 had been saved. At least 90 buildings were still in harm's way.

"There are some houses up there where all there is left is the foundation," said Leif Lunde of the sheriff's department. About 30 burned buildings were homes or cabins; the rest were outbuildings such as garages and sheds. It wasn't immediately clear what type of structure was destroyed Tuesday.

Views from the air showed piles of smoldering ash where houses once stood, next to cabins that apparently escaped unscathed. Most of the structures that survived had sprinkler systems that had been installed since 1999, firefighters said.

Updated maps
Cook County officials and fire crews try to update maps that show the perimeter of the Ham Lake fire.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

More than 200 firefighters from across the country were on the scene Tuesday as the fire stood at 16,266 acres and only 5 percent contained. More firefighters were pouring in, and about 500 were expected to eventually arrive on the scene.

Pawlenty thanked them all.

"This has been a very, very strong effort," Pawlenty said. "I know that everything didn't go perfectly. And it never does when you have a disaster. And so we have some issues that we are going to need to address."

Authorities believe the fire started at a campsite on the northwest corner of Ham Lake, just outside the BWCA. It was spotted Saturday, when firefighters began trying to stop it from the ground and air, but it expanded rapidly on Sunday and Monday, reaching into the BWCA and blackening areas near the end of the Gunflint Trail where dozens of homes, cabins and canoe outfitters are located. It also edged into Canada.

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