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Returning to Gunflint Lake

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Don and Carole Germain
Don and Carole Germain stand in front of their home on Gunflint Lake. A backburn last week kept the fire away from their property.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Don and Carole Germain have lived on the western tip of Gunflint Lake for 21 years.

The fire started just a mile and a half to the west of their cabin. They watched and waited as the wildfire burned west, and then north, and then across to the east on the Canadian shore of Gunflint Lake.

A week ago, when the fire jumped across to the south side of the lake at Gunflint Narrows, they had to leave.

Carole Germain
Carole Germain removes the white flag from their fire number. The couple attached the flag as a sign to fire officials when they evacuated from their home last week.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

But they came back to find everything just fine.

"The first thing we did is just stood and looked and saw how beautiful it was to see everything so green," says Don. "Then we went inside the cabin and checked it, and then we went down to the Lake and looked at the Canadian side, which is totally black."

Carol says seeing the cabin was awesome.

"Oh my, yes. You better believe it! she says. "Intact! It's wonderful."

The daffodils are blooming inside their deer-proof fence. The tall pines and balsams stand green and resinous. The grass is soft. And the lake is alive with cheerful waves.

"If you go down here, you'll be able to see more," Carole says as she leads the way down to the water's edge. "Gunflint Lodge is around this point."

Charred trees
A charred forest stands on both sides of the Gunflint Trail, where the fire swept across the road just east of Loon Lake.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"That shore is all Canada," says Don, pointing to the far side of the lake. "It's all charred. Last Thursday we were on the south side of the Lake, and watched the fire sweep across the top of those trees, and heard all of the roar and the sound that was accompanying it. Unbelievable! And without the controlled burn to the north of us, this property would have been gone too."

That controlled burn was a bold, almost desperate, move last week, by fire officials. They knew the wind was going to start pushing the fire east toward the homes and cabins on Gunflint Lake. They burned the area between Magnetic Lake and Gunflint Lake, to deprive the fire of fuel and nudge it to the north.

The tactic worked, and it saved the homes and resorts on the south side of the lake.

The Germains and their neighbors have been through a lot in the last few years. There was the Sag Corridor fire in 1995, the big blowdown in 1999, last year's Cavity Lake fire.

"This is our fifth fire," Don says.

Don Germain
Don Germain demonstrates his sprinkler system. It helped keep the trees around his home green while the fire burned about a mile and a half away.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

But when he's asked if this gives him any concerns about living here, he's emphatic.

"No. None."

"We're forest people," Carole says. "There are flatlander people, there are desert people, there are mountain people. We happen to be forest people!"

Fire just comes with the territory.

"There's something that comes everywhere people live, whether you're an urbanite, a suburbanite, or down in the Delta. They've all got Mother Nature," she says.

"Actually, fire is an asset," Don says. "As threatening as it is, and as difficult as it is to see all that charred Canadian shore, it's an asset. Because it will regenerate itself. Whether we will ever see in our lifetime the full benefit of that is a rather open question. But nevertheless it is a part of nature."

Don Germain has experienced that fire-and-regrowth cycle once already.

Germain home
The Germain home's living room windows look out over Gunflint Lake. On the Canadian side, the Ham Lake fire swept through, turning the landscape black.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"I remember standing on the dock of Gunflint Lodge when I was just a boy, and seeing all the charred spikes of trees on the Canadian side, as also down around Rose Lake, and North and South Lake. And that all came back over the period of our lifetime."

The Germains are breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude. But the fire continues to rage in the north, and the winds continue to be unpredictable.

Residents of the far end of the Gunflint Trail are hoping to visit their homes briefly today. They won't be allowed to stay. And the DNR just announced restrictions on off-highway vehicle use, to keep hot mufflers off dry grass, where they can cause fires.

No rain is predicted until the weekend.