Arriving cold front could push Greenwood Fire toward cabins this weekend

Wildfires Minnesota
Smoke rises above the Superior National Forest as the Greenwood Fire burns through Highway 2 on Monday in northeastern Minnesota. During a public meeting Thursday night in Finland, Minn., fire officials said they’re concerned about a weather front arriving this weekend that could shift the path of the Greenwood Fire toward dozens of cabins and homes on nearby McDougal Lake.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP

It's going to be a stressful weekend for the 90 or so homeowners who have fled their properties in the wake of the Greenwood Fire burning in northeastern Minnesota.

Since the fire first erupted in Superior National Forest Sunday afternoon from a lightning strike, a strong south wind has pushed the fire steadily north. The fire has grown about 1,000 acres a day and is now more than 7 square miles. Oppressive heat, low humidity and a tinder-dry forest have fueled the fire, which is near the small town of Isabella.

"It's the summer from hell, for watching the forest get compromised," said Doug Lande, who lives on a 40-acre farmstead along County Highway 2. On Wednesday, a shift in the winds pushed the fire to the west, directly toward his property.

Aircraft, including an Australian 737, likely saved his house by dumping water and fire retardant all around it, said Lande, a former firefighter.

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"They slurried the house with retardant and about 20 acres around the farmstead. That lasts only so long. Now, I'm wondering when the next run of the fire will be at the house."

Lande was one of dozens of people who attended a public meeting Thursday evening in Finland, Minnesota, to hear the latest from the U.S. Forest Service about the fire and their strategy to try and stop it.

There are now about 200 firefighters working on the blaze, from Mississippi to Colorado.

So far it's burned mainly north along Highway 2. That's created a long flank on the eastern side of the fire.

The concern now is a cold front expected to move through the region on Saturday, something that incident commander Brian Pisarek says keeps him up at night. He told the crowd the front is expected to bring strong winds from the northwest, which could push the fire aggressively to the east.

"The big unknown is this system coming through, is it going to be wet? If it comes through wet, and we get three-quarters of an inch of rain on it, and that happens before the wind, we're golden," he said.

But if the winds pick up and it doesn't rain, Pisarek said the fire could get out of control quickly.

"I don't want to give illusions that this is going to be a good weekend for us. It's going to be tough."

Wildfires Minnesota
Planes circle the Greenwood Fire as they scoop water from Sand Lake and drop it on the wildfire as it moves northeast on Monday about 40 miles north of Two Harbors, Minn.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP

So far aircraft have succeeded in keeping the fire from moving north closer to Highway 1. If crews can hold the fire steady before the winds shift, that could protect dozens of homes around the McDougal chain of lakes because as the fire moves east it would stay south of those homes.

That's the outcome that Colleen Schmidt is praying for. She and her husband live full time on North McDougal Lake. They were evacuated Monday morning.

"It's stressful, worrisome. [I’m] just really trying to remain optimistic and hope for the best and [I] know how hard these crews are working, and all the help that's coming in."

Schmidt was thankful for the public meeting. She says she has total confidence in the fire crews, even though it's hard to wait and see what will happen next.

"The weather makes me nervous. Watching the progression of the fire makes me nervous and seeing which direction the wind is blowing,” she said. “Some of that worry is starting to catch up after days of watching that progression and seeing it not be contained yet.”

Schmidt is staying in Knife River with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, which she says is a great distraction.

In the meantime, the Forest Service is also busy with other fires in the region, including the Whelp Fire burning near Sawbill Lake in the Boundary Waters that's now grown to about 30 acres.