Residents of upper Gunflint Trail to be allowed back briefly

Fighting fire
A firefighting plane heads off to dump a load of water on the flames at Gunflint Lake.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

One-tenth of an inch. That's how much it rained Monday night. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the firefighters here will take whatever they can get.

Mark Van Every is a spokesman for the interagency group battling the fire. He says the tiny leaves unfurling on the trees are a good sign too.

Perimeter of the fire
The red line shows the perimeter of the Gunflint Trail fire, as of Friday. The gray area through the center represents the Gunflint Trail.
Map courtesy of the Minnesota Incident Command System

"That means there's little bit more moisture. Unfortunately, the meteorologist told us we're about 14 inches below normal for precipitation up here," said Van Every. "It's important that we get some more precipitation, because otherwise this new green vegetation could very quickly dry out and become fuel for the fire."

Tuesday's action on the U.S. side of the fire focused on hot spots on the southwest corner of the blaze, and at the tip of the "finger" curled around Gunflint Lake.

Spokesman Dick Birger says that fingertip has now pushed its way into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to the south of the Gunflint Trail. That presents special challenges for the fire crews, because they are now governed by federal wilderness regulations.

"These are in the wilderness down here, so they're using hand tools and water to go direct -- we call going direct when they're actually working closer to the flaming edge," said Birger.

They can't use motorized pumps, so they carry water in special packs.

In one spot, the fire has pushed its way into the BWCAW, so fire crews in that area are governed by wilderness regulations, meaning they can't use motorized pumps to fight the fire.

"They're just little backpacks that they would put in the water, put on their back, and they have a small hand-operated pump," Birger explained.

It's time-consuming work, and it can only be done when the winds are calm enough and the fire damped down enough to allow people to get close.

Monday night's rain showers stayed south of the Canadian border. To the north, the fire is roaring ahead. Mark Van Every says Canadian firefighters are hard-pressed to hold their own against the blaze.

"There's a lot of fires going on up in Ontario right now, so their resources are stretched very thin," said Van Every. "That's why our folks will likely be assisting on the Canadian side of the border, like they've provided assistance to us on this fire and in the past."

Meanwhile, the Cook County Sheriff is hoping he'll be able to allow residents of the far end of the Gunflint Trail to visit their properties later this week. Many haven't been able to get in since the fire started 10 days ago.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Leif Lunde says there are a lot of things to worry about as people venture into the burned area. For one thing, firefighters are still working, and traveling on the two-lane Gunflint Trail.

Firefighting with foam
This firefighter sprays flame-retarding foam to protect this area from the wildfire.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Incident Command System

"There are power lines that are melted and down, and I don't suspect any of those are live but that could be an issue for people," Lunde explained. "There's also freestanding chimneys, that's a very large danger issue for people. There's freestanding concrete walls, mortar walls from basements and what not, there's snags, burned down trees hung up in another tree, hasn't fallen down yet, that's a safety concern for people."

Lunde cautions the visits could be cancelled if the fire flares again.

On the U.S. side, 133 structures have burned so far. On the Canadian side, about 14 structures are confirmed lost.

So far it's cost nearly $6 million to fight the Ham Lake fire in the U.S. More than 1,000 people have been working the fire, but some crews are expected to be released soon. There's not a big chance of rain in the forecast, but at least temperatures are cooler, and humidity is around 40 percent.

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