Hit or miss: Greenwood Fire levels some cabins, spares others

smoke from a wildfire
Smoke from the Greenwood Fire on Thursday.
Superior National Forest

The Greenwood Fire has now torched more than 40 square miles of forest in northeastern Minnesota, including 12 homes or cabins caught in the path of the swift-moving fire earlier this week.

On Monday, gusty winds sent the fire roaring through the McDougal Lake area — a chain of three lakes west of the town of Isabella that’s dotted with cabins and some permanent residences. Three additional primary structures were damaged, with another 57 outbuildings destroyed.

Favorable weather conditions, combined with an increase in resources — there are now 476 personnel working the fire — have allowed crews to make progress in establishing containment lines around the fire.

But nearly 300 households remain evacuated from a large swath of land surrounding the fire, including homes along Lake County Highway 2 and several areas north of state Highway 1, around East and West Chub lakes, Jackpot, Slate Lake and the Mitawan Lake Road area.

Jeff Solomon and his wife live part-time at their home on North McDougal Lake. They’ve been evacuated since Monday and are now staying at a friend’s home in the Twin Cities.

On Tuesday, Solomon got a call from the Lake County Sheriff with some very good news. He and his wife were two of the lucky ones. Their cabin is still standing.

But he said he felt a mixture of excitement and sorrow, because many of his neighbors were not so lucky. From emails and text messages exchanged over the past several days, he estimates that half the homes and cabins on N. McDougal Lane, on the south shore of the lake, are gone.

“Some of us were fortunate, and some of us weren’t,” he said. “So, even those of us who were fortunate enough to have our structures saved, [there’s] kind of a little bit of survivor's guilt, when you know that [some of] our neighbors weren't as fortunate.”

Solomon believes that precautions they took to protect their property from fire helped to save it. He cleared out dead trees from their land, including balsam fir killed by spruce budworm. “This summer, I was taking out about four or five trees a week,” he said.

Chase Peterson of Finland, Minn., who works for Greg Tibbetts Trucking, used heavy logging equipment to help clear the road into the McDougal Lake area on Tuesday.

Video he took and posted on Facebook along the road into Solomon’s place shows trees standing like blackened matchsticks, and homes completely leveled. All that’s left are the foundations, covered in ash.

“It was kind of like a war zone,” said Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson, who drove into the area Tuesday to assess the damage. In many areas, he said, “Everything is burned, as far as the ground and the treed areas and down to the soil.”

But then he said other areas were untouched by the fire. “And the same thing with the cabins, it'd be hit and miss where some were totally lost to the fire,” but others were unscathed.

Johnson cautioned that still more cabins may have been destroyed by the fire. He said his staff hasn’t been able to access remote cabins that are only accessible by water between Highway 2 and the McDougal Lake area.

And even for those whose cabins were spared, they know that their forested retreats are going to look completely different.

Mike Furtman, a Duluth-based wildlife photographer who bought a cabin with his wife on Middle McDougal Lake last year, said they purchased the property because it reminded them of the Boundary Waters, with a view of rocky islands studded with tall pine trees. Now he fears it will look like a moonscape.

"We're approaching 70, and it's not going to grow back in our lifetime,” he said. “There's just so much uncertainty. It's just like a slow-motion disaster happening."

Johnson said he hopes people will be able to get in to see their properties next week sometime. But he said that depends on the weather, and how quickly fire crews are able to establish containment lines around the fire.

“It's still an active fire,” he said, even in the McDougal Lake area where the fire burned through. “That’s why fire crews are still in there. It isn't like it just went through and it's done. There's still stuff burning in there, and they're putting out hotspots and other places that start flaring up again.”

Reinforcements arrived recently from Montana and elsewhere, including more aircraft and elite “hotshot” crews that have been conducting defensive burn-out operations along Highways 1 and 2.

The tactic essentially fights fire with fire, by intentionally burning flammable material in front of the wildfire. Then, if the fire were to make a run toward one of the highways, it would run out of fuel to burn.

"The goal there is to give us a good strong area of black, and then once we get that done, we'll be sending folks back in there to mop that up to create what we call ‘cold hard black,’" explained fire information officer Clark McCreedy.

Cool, cloudy conditions have also helped to slow the spread of several other wildfires burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The John Ek Fire is holding steady at around 1,500 acres, while the Whelp Fire, about five miles northwest of Sawbill Lake, has burned about 50 acres.

Officials on Thursday planned to insert firefighters into the Whelp Fire. Crews continue to monitor the John Ek Fire by air.

The Superior National Forest announced earlier this week it was extending its closure of the wilderness area by another week, because of the ongoing fire danger and limited resources to respond to emergencies.

The Boundary Waters are closed through at least Sept. 3.

Correction (Aug. 26, 2021): A previous version of this story misidentified Chase Peterson. The story has been updated.

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