Losses mount on Gunflint Trail

Firefighters and a boat
Dick Birger and Daria Day help resort owner Debbie Mark put one of her boats into Seagull Lake.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The fire is burning in a patchwork pattern. Firefighters call it a mosaic. It hops and skips. It destroys some areas and leaves others almost untouched.

"You see the intensity in the charring on the trees all the way to the top," says firefighter Daria Day. "Most of these trees torched out. But it moved fairly quickly, so there was not a great deal of burning in the duff. In most cases, in real dry years, if it's a slower fire, you're going to be doing a lot of mop-up still in organic material in the soil."

So the mopping up might go faster, but no one knows when that will happen. And in the meantime, there's plenty of action.

The charred remains
Just down the road from Seagull Canoe Outfitters, the fire destroyed four cabins.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The fire is burning on both sides of the Gunflint Trail. Most of the time it shows up in smoldering grass and small puffs of smoke. But suddenly, just above the Seagull Lake fire station, firefighter Dick Birger notices a plume of smoke climbing hundreds of feet into the air.

"When you see a column like that, a plume like that, it's actually creating its own weather. And you get unpredictable fire behavior," he says. "The clouds of smoke are just boiling up. A lot of BTUs are being released It's causing its own squirrely winds -- winds that aren't necessarily in a straight line; they're reacting to the topography."

It's that kind of action that's making the Ham Lake fire so unpredictable. That sudden blow-up was dangerous enough to prompt the sheriff to quit letting people drive in to check on their cabins.

But earlier in the day on Tuesday, Debbie Mark and Dave Truehart were putting boats in the water at their Seagull Lake Outfitters.

They took a break to describe what it was like on Saturday, as the fire raced up Seagull Lake toward their home and their livelihood.

Fire boat
Dave Truehart, co-owner of Seagull Canoe Outfitters.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Dave Truehart worked desperately to repair the sprinkler system before he obeyed the Cook County Sheriff's evacuation order.

"Over the winter, some things break off, a couple of sprinkler heads were gone from the roof, some of the fittings were a little bit lose," Truehart says. "I had to make sure the pressure was high enough to reach the Alpine cabin. And that took fixing every single leak. And then our own home, and once I got the home, Debbie's on the radio, 'we're going to leave now.' They want us out of here. It was getting very late, and you could not see past the bay. So we knew it was getting close."

Then they jumped in the car and headed down the Gunflint Trail toward Grand Marais. Debbie Mark says she's been through it before.

"I grew up up here on the Gunflint as a kid, so I've evacuated for the '76 fire, Roy Lake and the Sag Corridor fire in '95, and we did not have to evac for the Cavity Lake fire last year, thankfully But this hit a little closer to home as we were driving down between flames. As you see the fire creeping up the trail going north, it was a very sleepless night Saturday night wondering what we would wake up to Sunday morning," she says.

The fire pushed through on Sunday. The sprinklers worked, and all their buildings are fine. There's even green grass on the ground. But just down the shore, four of their neighbors' cabins were burned to cinders.

On Monday, the sheriff allowed Mark and Truehart to come home. They had to pick up a group that had been out on Saganaga Lake for six days.

"Dave picked them up and they knew something was going on because they could obviously see the fire from the south, and lots of smoke. The smoke was so heavy out where they were camped on Sag, they couldn't even get in their canoe for fear of getting lost, in addition to Sag being a big body of water, but they knew we would pick them up or someone else would pick them up later, so they weren't worried, but they were concerned about the welfare of everybody else."

In a fire this intense and destructive, it's remarkable that no injuries have been reported.

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