On Gunflint Trail, memories of 'devil's fire' still burn

A CL 215 water bomber picks up water on Gunflint Lake on May 8, 2007.
A CL 215 water bomber picks up water on Gunflint Lake on May 8, 2007, while the fire to the north takes the turn and runs to Gunflint Lake in a few hours.
Courtesy Dan Baumann

Bruce Kerfoot will never forget standing on his dock on Gunflint Lake, just south of the Canadian border, watching the fire rage on the opposite shore.

"My mouth was wide open," he recalled. "With flames a couple hundred feet high, moving at about 25 to 30 miles an hour, and a 30,000-foot smoke plume that you could see from International Falls. The sound of it was like a roaring locomotive."

Kerfoot called it the "devil's fire" because winds kept pushing it in new directions. It circled around the lake to within a mile of the Gunflint Lodge, the resort his family had run for more than 80 years. He was told he had two hours to evacuate.

Bruce Kerfoot, former owner of the Gunflint Lodge
Bruce Kerfoot, former owner of the Gunflint Lodge, talks about the fire at Coho Cafe & Bakery in Tofte.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"I reached up and took down mother's 'Old Town' canvas canoe, and strapped that on the top of our truck, and took her picture off the wall," he said, pausing. "That one got to you. That's your roots of a couple generations. And I wasn't sure we were going to have anything left to come back to."

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Kerfoot was lucky. His lodge was spared. Others weren't so fortunate.

The Ham Lake Fire began May 5, 2007, with a seemingly innocent campfire. It quickly blew out of control, fanned by erratic winds and fueled by tinder dry conditions.

Dan Baumann looks through photos he took during the fire.
Dan Baumann, owner of Golden Eagle Lodge along the Gunflint Trail, looks through photos. Baumann was the fire chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department during the fire, and he went from property to property to record the status of structures.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It took 1,000 firefighters from around the country a week to finally corral it. By that time 133 structures had burned, including one outfitting company and 61 homes and residences, most at the far end of the Gunflint Trail on Sea Gull and Saganaga lakes.

"When we drove down the roads, it was like a war zone," remembered Dan Baumann, chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department during the fire. It was his job to check on cabins after the area had been evacuated, put out spot fires, and triage cabins that were still standing.

A cabin is fully involved as firefighters try to save what they can.
In the early hours of day three, a cabin is fully involved as firefighters move from one resort cabin to another to save what they can through the night of May 7, 2007.
Courtesy Dan Baumann

By the time he reached them, many had already been engulfed in flames. He remembers the glow in the night sky, and what sounded like constant firecrackers going off — propane tanks exploding in the blaze.

Some homes escaped the fire unscathed.

After the blowdown of 1999, when severe winds knocked over millions of trees in the Boundary Waters, more than 100 homeowners along the Gunflint Trail installed sprinkler systems because of the increased fire danger.

Michael Valentini talks how sprinkler systems protected structures.
Michael Valentini talks about how sprinkler systems protected structures during the fire at his home in front of his own sprinkler system on the far northern edge of the Gunflint Trail.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Michael Valentini installed one of those systems at his home at the end of the trail. When he returned after the fire burned through, he drove up his driveway, "and my hill was black," he recalled. "All I saw was my sign that had 'Valentini' on it."

But then he crested the hill, "and everything was green." His house was untouched. "You wouldn't know there was a fire if you couldn't hear it and smell it."

Only one home with an operating sprinkler system was destroyed in the fire.

FEMA awarded a $3 million grant to Cook County after the fire to install more sprinkler systems. Valentini estimates about 700 homeowners in the county have installed them.

An outfitter is a complete loss before firefighters could save it.
On day three at about 6 a.m., an outfitter is a complete loss before firefighters got a chance to try and save it, May 7, 2007.
Courtesy Dan Baumann

Forest officials stress that sprinklers are not foolproof. They say it's most important for homeowners to clear brush and trees away to create a defensible space for firefighters.

But since the Ham Lake Fire officials say residents are much more cautious about fire, and prepared for the next blaze.

"Our fire department grew as a result of the fire," said Valentini. "That was a real plus."

Dave and Nancy Seaton, owners of Hungry Jack Outfitters
Dave and Nancy Seaton, owners of Hungry Jack Outfitters and Cabins, talk about the fire at their home at Hungry Jack along the Gunflint Trail.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

In fact, Valentini was one of the first new members to volunteer. The department now boasts more than 30 members. Local homeowners contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to build two new fire halls.

"It absolutely glued this community together," said Nancy Seaton, who along with her husband David runs Hungry Jack Outfitters. "Our closest neighbor is several miles away, but I feel closer here than I ever did living in any city. "

Seaton helped organize a tree planting called the Gunflint Green Up the year after the fire. The response was overwhelming. Volunteers planted 75,000 trees the first year alone.

A young jack pine branch in front of a dead and blackened tree trunk.
A young jack pine branch stands in stark contrast to a dead and blackened tree trunk Tuesday along the far northern reaches of the Gunflint Trail in an area devastated 10 years earlier.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Those pines are now several feet tall. Aspens and jack pines have also sprouted since the fire. And bumper blueberry crops have lured new tourists up the trail.

But the landscape still shows scars. Huge granite outcroppings long hidden by trees are now visible all around. Blackened stumps stick out from among the young trees.

Those scars are largely invisible in the summer. And despite the devastation, almost every cabin owner chose to rebuild.

The remains of a destroyed dwelling consumed by the Ham Lake Fire in 2007.
The remains of a destroyed dwelling consumed by the Ham Lake Fire create an eerie landscape along the Gunflint Trail on May 8, 2007.
Clint Austin | Duluth News Tribune via AP 2007

"There is a love for being up here," explained Michael Valentini. "This is their mecca. This is where they want to be. There's a lot of emotional investment in it."

That was certainly true for Jan Siverston. An artist who owns galleries in Grand Marais, Minn., and Duluth, she lost the cabin on Seagull Lake she had owned for 20 years.

"It was eerie. Like a moonscape," she said, when she was first allowed in to see what was left. "The cabin was just a pile of rubble."

Siverston misses the coziness of the tall jack pines that used to snuggle around her old cabin. But she never considered not rebuilding.

Jan Siverston stands in front of her new cabin, rebuilt after the fire.
Jan Siverston stands next to a young jack pine tree that was planted after the fire burned down her cabin and the surrounding trees. The fire revealed rock outcroppings throughout her property and she worked to preserve the view of those rocks when replanting trees.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

So, she built a new place, taller this time, to enjoy the incredible view of the lake, and watch a new forest grow up around her.

"I was kind of in awe of the change that had occurred in such a short time," she said. Now the forest continues "changing dramatically every year."

Young neon-green jack pines are sprouting all around her new cabin, a sign of the new life that a wildfire yields. Wildfires cause jack pine cones to burst open, spreading their seeds to create a new generation of trees.

"Wildfire is a very natural part of the ecosystem," said Patty Johnson, fire management officer for the Superior National Forest. "People love living here because it's beautiful because it regenerated from fire at one time. It's going to keep having fire. It's meant to burn."

Correction (May 1, 2017): A photo caption misidentified the business that Dave and Nancy Seaton own. The caption has been updated. Correction (May 4, 2017): A previous version of this story misidentified Dan Baumann's title.