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2 campers dead in Boundary Waters storms; thousands without power

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A large tree on the back porch
A large tree fell onto the back porch of Annalise Peterson's home Thursday, July 21, 2016 in Duluth's Woodland neighborhood after severe thunderstorms downed hundreds of trees and left nearly 60,000 people without power.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

Updated: 7:07 p.m. | Posted: 8:20 a.m.

Two canoe country campers were killed and at least three injured during storms that ripped across northern Minnesota overnight Wednesday into Thursday. 

Lake County Emergency Management Director B.J Kohlstedt confirmed a 39-year-old woman and a 13-year-old boy were killed by falling trees on Basswood Lake. U.S. Forest Service officials said later the deaths happened on the Canadian side of Basswood in Quetico Provincial Park. 

Ontario Police released the names of the two campers — Rorth Lac, 39, of Carrollton, Texas, and Christian James Sanchez, 13, of Lewisville, Texas. According to Provincial Constable Jim Davis, they were camped on a point of land on Basswood Lake, just north of the Canadian border, when the storm came through. Their deaths were not considered suspicious. Autopsies will be conducted at Lake of The Woods Hospital in Kenora, Ontario.

Lac and Sanchez were part of group from Texas camping through the Boy Scouts of America Northern Tier High Adventure Program,  according to John Van Dreese, the program's general manager. The injured campers were flown out of the wilderness area Thursday morning for medical attention. 

Several other Boy Scout groups were also out at the time, he said, but those groups weathered the storm safely.

The storm, which packed destructive winds, knocked down trees and power lines elsewhere in Minnesota, leaving tens of thousands of people without service from Duluth to the Twin Cities on what could be the hottest day of the year.

Another camper was taken to the emergency room this morning with minor injuries after a tree fell through his tent, said Jason Zabokrtsky with Ely Outfitters. He said all the Ely Outfitters-led groups are safe, though some of them are having a difficult time getting back. 

"The portages are all covered in fallen trees," he said. "There's a lot of damage out there." 

In recent weeks, Zabokrtsky said trees in the wilderness area have become more unstable. The earth around their roots is saturated with rain, he said, making trees more likely to fall in high winds. 

"Unfortunately a lot of this comes down to chance," he said. "You can't get away from trees in the Boundary Waters." 

Wednesday night's storm produced straight line winds as high as 80 mph, said Carol Christenson, a National Weather Service meteorologist. 

  It swept down from Canada into North Dakota late Wednesday evening, heading east at 60 miles per hour. By the early hours of Thursday morning the storm was dropping trees and power lines across northern Minnesota, reaching its peak strength over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down into Duluth. 

  "This was a huge long storm that extended all the way through much of Minnesota," she said. "It blew down a lot of trees all along its path."

In Duluth, officials advised against travel early Thursday because of dangerous power lines and debris in the streets.

The storm hit Duluth at about 3:30 a.m."producing very strong winds and damaging wind gusts. We have widespread tree damage in a number of communities throughout the area," said National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Moore.

The storm caught many people by surprise in Duluth. A severe thunderstorm watch was first issued at 12:30 a.m. after most people were asleep, said Dan Miller, science and operations officer, at the Duluth National Weather Service office. 

"Sometimes we can nail these kinds of events a day or two days in advance," he said. "Other times they get highly organized very quickly, and you almost have to play catch up, because none of the models handled them very well."

One of Duluth's operational towers was also damaged during the storm, so it was unable to transmit a warning siren. 

Patricia Oakes of Duluth was awakened by her cell phone around 3:30 a.m. by the severe weather warning. 

"Got the dog, and I was going in the basement, and it was either a loud clap of thunder, or a tree hitting the house," she recalled. "It turned out it was three trees hitting my house."

Two big pines are now leaning against her roof. Another huge trunk broke off and is perched right on top of her roof and she can see daylight through her ceiling. 

Erin Finnegan with Eagle Lake Forestry was there to assess the damage. 

"A house like this that has 3-4 trees on the house, and a couple on the garage, these will be priority first, so that if there's another rain storm, we don't want additional damage to their home."

Duluth also lost power at its main water pumping station and officials during the day were advising people to conserve water. 

Residents can call (218) 730-HELP to report downed trees over streets and sidewalks.

The Forest Service Thursday afternoon said many trees were still in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and that many forest roads and trails remained blocked. 

Officials also asked people to be vigilant and take precautions since strong storms with high winds, torrential rain and hail are forecast for northeastern Minnesota on Saturday.

Last month, another storm hit the wilderness area, dropping trees and taking the life of Craig Walz, who was killed when a tree fell into his campsite near Duncan Lake.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.