Gunflint wildfire grows, prompts more evacuations

An active fire
The Ham Lake fire has been burning since Saturday near the end of the Gunflint Trail and the BWCA wilderness.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Everyone has a lot of respect for the Ham Lake fire. It has doubled in size each day for the first three days of its life. And it twists and turns with the wind, confounding the best efforts of the people fighting it.

Greg Peterson, operations team manager, said the fire had destroyed 45 structures and was moving east, deeper into Canada and threatening more homes and cabins in Minnesota. About 200 to 250 acres of the fire was in Canada.

Peterson said firefighters planned to set a controlled burn later in the day in an attempt to rob the wildfire of fuel. That controlled burn was among the reasons for the expanded evacuation.

Smoke on the water
The smoke from the Ham Lake Fire could be seen over Devil Track Lake, near Grand Marais.
Photo courtesy of Don Davison

Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said he understood the frustration of the more than 100 people who have been removed from their homes because of the fire, but he still would not allow them past the roadblocks on the Gunflint Trail and into the fire zone.

"For now, that just can't happen," he said.

Wednesday was a transition day for the firefighting teams. An elite "Type 1" team has arrived from western states -- a team with 50 staff members and a lot of experience fighting complex fires.

Team member David Eaker says this fire presents a lot of classic complexities.

David Eaker
David Eaker is a member of the Type 1 fire team from the Intermountain West. He says the Ham Lake fire presents complexities that call for the expertise of his team. The dry conditions, the forced evacuations, and the size of the fire are all challenges.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"As a lot of people know, the northern part of Minnesota has been under drought conditions for a number of years now, and the fuel conditions are very dry, especially for this time of year," said Eaker. "For example, today we're going to be around the low 80s with humidity probably in the low 20s. And that's really sort of unheard of here in Minnesota."

That means the fire just keeps on burning and burning.

"Last night ... you could look out on the horizon and see this glow, orange glow. And normally a lot of times at night, the humidity rises, temperatures drop and the fire drops down. Here, it's not doing that as much," said Eaker.

"It seems like in the last number of years the fires seem to be getting bigger and starting earlier than they did in the past."

"Also we've had some winds, especially during the initial stages of this fire, and the wind has driven it. Plus all the dead and downed fuel on ground from the blowdown in '99, and some of the decadent trees that are out there," Eaker added. "All of these things, when you put them together, it just creates a situation that it's going to be very difficult to put this fire out."

Eaker says people are shaking their heads over all these fires -- four big forest fires in three years just in northeastern Minnesota.

"You hear people say, 'Is this global warming?' We can't really address that; we have no knowledge of that per se. But certainly, not only here in northern Minnesota, but in many places in the West, it seems like in the last number of years the fires seem to be getting bigger and starting earlier than they did in the past," Eaker said.

Global warming or not, all the teams here are totally focused on this fire. Even the local volunteer fire department is still on the job.

Mike Prom owns a resort at the end of the trail, and he's the assistant fire chief for the Gunflint Trail. Prom and his crew have been checking each house in the fire area each day.

Mike Prom
Mike Prom is the assistant chief for the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department. His crews are checking on every property in the fire area, fixing sprinkler systems and putting out spot fires.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"If their sprinkler system's going, we do our best to keep them going, and replace propane, and that kind of thing. And then if there's a spot fire it's radioed in and you go put it out. And that's what we do, jump around and just keep putting out the little ones around structures," said Prom.

The Ham Lake fire has burned more than 34 square miles, and destroyed 45 buildings, but so far no serious injuries have been reported.

Joni Kristenson is a public health nurse with Cook County. Her department issued a warning to people in Grand Marais Tuesday night about the smoke that filtered into town. But she says the firefighters are only suffering from the usual minor problems of their profession.

"The biggie is blisters," Kristenson said. "[They're] tired, people getting too dry, not drinking enough water. ... We're trying to help people stay physically and emotionally as healthy as they can."

They need to stay in shape for the long haul. The weather is promising no help. Thursday the winds are expected to shift to the northwest, pushing the fire toward the southeast, back toward the cabins and resorts along the Gunflint Trail.

Joni Kristenson
Joni Kristenson, with the Cook County Health Department, says there are many services available for people affected by the fire. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are offering food, shelter, and clothing. The county is offering counseling services.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile dead-end two-lane highway leading from Grand Marais to the state-protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other popular, remote vacation destinations.

The fire is believed to have started at a campsite on remote Ham Lake, which is about 31 miles northwest of Grand Marais.

There are more than 4,500 square miles of protected wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.

More than 300 firefighters from across the country were on the scene Wednesday, and more personnel, heavy equipment and aircraft was pouring in. About 500 firefighters were expected to eventually arrive on the scene.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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