Pagami Creek Fire in BWCA now estimated at 100,000 acres

Smoke
This image taken NASA's Terra satellite from shows smoke from the Pagami Creek fire in northeastern Minnesota on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011.
Image courtesy NASA

The Pagami Creek Fire that started in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has now engulfed about 100,000 acres, prompting officials to consider more evacuations, and to close large sections of the popular park on Tuesday evening.

The fire grew rapidly from 11,000 acres on Monday to more than 60,000 acres by midday Tuesday, and Gov. Mark Dayton issued an emergency order to mobilize the resources of the National Guard to aid firefighting efforts.

Most of the fire remains within the wilderness area, with no reports of injuries or serious property damage, but several entry points to popular camping and canoeing areas have been closed as a precaution. The fire was caused by lightning that struck the Pagami Creek area on Aug. 18.

Within the BWCAW, the fire has closed Lake One, one of the most accessible and popular entry points to the wilderness. A small part of the fire has also spread outside the wilderness area to the northern shores of Silver Island Lake, about 15 miles northwest of Tofte. Smoke from the fire has been reported in Duluth and Grand Marais on Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline, and as far away as Traverse City, Mich.

Map of Pagami Creek fire

BWCA fire from the air

• View more (and larger) photos of the Pagami Creek fire.

Frank Udovich, who owns the Kawishiwi Resort on Lake One, praised the firefighters' efforts.

"They had a very ambitious waterbombing campaign over the last couple of days that ultimately has probably saved most of the Fernberg Trail and my resort," he said.

Udovich said he provided about two dozen of his 200 canoes to firefighters.

Other residents who rely on tourism say they're watching the fire closely.

"We're going to stay as optimistic as we can."

"The issue is, where does it stop and how do they even start to try to contain it?" said Jason Zabokrtsky, who owns the Boundary Waters Guide Service. "We're going to stay as optimistic as we can and try not to think about worst case scenarios."

Fighting fires in remote wilderness areas can be costly and dangerous, said Valdo Calvert, the retired regional fire chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Calvert supervised fire crews during a Cavity Lake fire that burned about 32,000 acres along the Gunflint Trail in 2006. That operation relied heavily on planes to transport firefighters and canoes to battle the blaze.

But Calvert said air operations can be risky. "It's exposure time for pilots, so every time you're in the air, something can go wrong," he said.

Calvert said fire managers have to consider those risks when handling blazes in the Boundary Waters and other wilderness areas.

Authorities said Tuesday they might need to evacuate residents of Isabella, a small town southeast of the blaze, if the fire cannot be contained. The Lake County Sheriff's Office had already evacuated 36 homes and businesses along County Road 7 just north of Isabella. Another 240 structures are on a standby evacuation order. The Red Cross set up a shelter in a nearby community center.

More than 200 firefighters were at the scene Tuesday, including crews from all over the Upper Midwest, an elite firefighting team from the northern Rockies, and four Minnesota National Guard UH-60 "Blackhawk" Helicopters and Army and Air National Guard Aviation support teams ordered in by the governor.

Authorities were trying to stay at least one day ahead of what they expected the fire might do so that canoeists and others in the park would have enough time to make it to safety.

Windy conditions helped the fire spread quickly -- 16 miles on Monday -- and fire incident spokeswoman Jean Bergerson said wind is expected to be a factor on Wednesday.

"It makes fighting fire from the ground impossible, and it makes fighting fire from the air very difficult," she said. However, cooler temperatures and rainfall Tuesday night and Wednesday are expected to aid firefighting efforts.

Related maps, reports, photos are available at InciWeb.

(MPR reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.)

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