Highway 1 Fire edged dangerously close to Ely

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As smoke choked them and ash rained down, Ely residents, who declined to give their name, hurriedly threw belongings into their vehicles as they prepared to evacuate.
Steve Foss for MPR

Firefighters were able to stop a fast moving wildfire just outside the town of Ely on Thursday. The Highway 1 Fire started when a power line snapped.

Several small fires quickly grew into a 216-acre blaze. Superior National Forest District Ranger Mark Van Every says the fire got to within a couple of hundred yards of Ely.

"It was a very close call," he said. "The fire was moving very rapidly, spotting ahead of itself, being pushed by the wind, you can see by the shape of the fire, it's a classic wind driven fire, it starts here and it gets pushed in a large cigar shape, and it was being pushed directly towards that southeast end of town."

Van Every says a quick response from several large water-dropping aircraft stationed nearby likely saved some homes from being destroyed. He says firefighters today will work to contain the fire's perimeter, and then work from the outside in, extinguishing any hot spots.

"We were very fortunate to have aircraft available," he said. "If we did not have the aircraft, I think we would have had a very different outcome."

The St. Louis County sheriff's office is working with residents to secure their homes. Despite keeping the blaze out of Ely, fire officials still say it's not contained at all, and could flare up with more high winds being forecast for Friday.

Earlier Thursday, city officials asked about 230 residents in Ely to voluntarily evacuate. They were allowed to return a few hours later. Schools were closed and the city hospital put on stand by.

Members of about seven households along Highway 1 still cannot return to their homes. Dick Rodich was only able to grab some money before he and his wife fled.

"The smoke was very thick. Oh, it was thick. I mean, I couldn't see 20 feet in the yard when we pulled out of there. That's how quick it came around," he said.

"You don't even think when something like that happens," he said. "There's other things I should have grabbed, but I didn't. That's why i'm hoping now I can get back in there to at least lock up the house."

Firefighters are expecting warm temperatures, gusty winds and low humidity will raise the risk of fire again today. But fire managers at a morning briefing say they now have dozens of firefighters available and the blaze is keeping low to the ground for now.

(The Associated Press contributed this report.)