Hot Winds Feed Flames in Minnesota

Temperatures reaching 93 degrees and west winds exceeding 20 mph fanned a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness forest fire Monday afternoon.

The fire was mostly quiet before 4 p.m., but the heat and wind pushed air tanker crews back into attack mode near Alpine Lake, about five miles southwest of where the Gunflint Trail ends. The fire pushed closer to developed areas and caused concern when it jumped a creek that had been considered a fire break.

It also was "backing" into the wind, entering an area of blown-down trees and creeping north onto a ridge of pines that fire experts say could cause a huge smoke plume and keep the fire very active.

The fire started in an area of dry jack pine on the northern edge of the 1999 blowdown area. That's where high winds toppled millions of trees, creating unprecedented amounts of fuel for fires.

So far, however, the fire hasn't been unusually intense, and Forest Service and Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department officials say they're ready should it head toward civilization.

There has been no ground assault on the blaze because fire officials have been reluctant to put any firefighters in harm's way.

The only ground crews near the fire Monday laid about 4,000 feet of fire hose on the portage between Seagull and Grandpa Lakes. Pumps at either end will feed an elaborate system of big sprinklers, which officials hope, when activated, will create a wet fire line should the blaze turn that direction.

The fire commander's top priority is to stop the fire from moving any farther east toward cabins and outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail.

"We'll be hooking up sprinklers every 50 feet. When we get this up and running, it really raises the humidity in there," said Dan Grindy, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildfire veteran commanding the 10-person crew.

Today's biggest story is expected to be much cooler and calmer weather, said Gil Knight, spokesman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. That should give crews a chance to continue beating the fire down, possibly even on the ground.

Even with dozens of fire trucks moving about, air tankers buzzing overhead and ash falling on her picnic table, Bonnie Morton seemed unphased Monday.

Morton had brought a picnic basket and book to the Seagull Lake boat landing to occupy her time as a public awareness volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service.

She told canoe campers about the forest fire as smoke billowed at times. But neither Morton nor the campers seemed too excited about it.

"We tell them what campsites are closed and about the couple of closed portages, and they go on their way," she said. "They don't really seem to mind much. They want to go."

Bonnie and her husband, Ron, summer campers from San Benito, Texas, exemplified the attitude of area residents, who largely are taking the BWCAW's first big fire in years in stride. So far, it's business -- and pleasure -- as usual.

Kurt Schierienbeck of Grand Marais, a Superior National Forest fire specialist, was working on his fourth official job in three days on the fire. He started as the initial attack commander Saturday, just minutes after the fire was reported, then moved into the safety officer role, then was called into firefighting operations. He'll probably be here until the fire is officially declared under control, which could be days or even weeks.

Dozens of command, aviation and support personnel, even if they aren't directly near the fire, are working 15-hour days in a host of support rolls around the firefighting effort.

"My vacation was supposed to start yesterday. I guess I'll be taking it on the Gunflint Trail," Schierienbeck said. "It's not unusual to be fighting a fire somewhere this time of year, so it may as well be in our back yard."

Accurate mapping using satellite technology set the burned area at about500 acres, smaller than the 650 estimated late Sunday.

Pilots surveying the fire verified the success of Sunday's relentless air attacks, which dropped more than 270,000 gallons of water on the fire.

Three amphibious, water bombing CL-215 airplanes, two land-based tankers and a helicopter with a water bucket were on hand to fight the fire if needed. Other aircraft were being used as aerial air traffic control and to pinpoint where water drops should be made.

Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk credited the air tankers with keeping the fire away from people and property.

About 80 wildland firefighters are on hand, some from as far away as Hoosier National Forest in Indiana. Most of the ground crews are full-time or seasonal employees of state and federal forestry and resource agencies who volunteer to travel to wildfire hot spots across the nation. While Minnesota has several experienced firefighters of its own, many are on duty for their agencies near their local communities, on guard for any new fires. Others recently returned from fires in western states and are on mandatory rest periods.

Firefighters loaded up cans of gasoline, chain saws, picks, shovels and other firefighting gear -- just in case their job changes or they are surprised by a wind shift. Boats and canoes were kept ready to escape any flare-up.

Combined with swamps, creeks and lakes, fire experts hope the blaze will burn itself out within the sprinkler fire line. They are even considering lighting small fires to create wider fire breaks. But they know the blaze still has the potential to pick up and run -- especially if winds persist and rain remains scarce.

The fire command's top priority is keeping the fire from moving east, into developed areas at the end of the Gunflint Trail.

Also Monday, several fires continued to burn across the border in Ontario, including a large blaze north of Knife Lake, as the border area remains very dry. No new fires of consequence were reported in northern Minnesota.

The Alpine Lake fire is burning a little more than two miles from the nearest structures, which include cabins, homes, resorts, outfitters and campgrounds at the end of the Gunflint Trail on Saganaga and Seagull Lakes. Officials said there's been no need to consider an evacuation of the area. But Cook County Sheriff's Department and other emergency personnel are on hand and monitoring the situation should the need arise.

More than 20 small fire trucks also are on hand at the end of the Gunflint Trail to protect structures, and many local businesses and homeowners are wetting down their properties with their own sprinkler systems, a tactic that has proven successful in saving buildings in recent California and Canadian forest fires.

Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, said a campfire ban may be enacted throughout the blowdown area this week if ample rain doesn't fall soon. Much of the region has gone more than five weeks with below-average rainfall.

Sanders, who flew over the area late Sunday, said he was surprised by how dry much of the forest was, including many swamps that held no water.

The National Weather Service in Duluth predicted a30 percent chance of showers in the area today through Wednesday night.

"We're expecting dry conditions for Thursday but some more scattered thunderstorms on Friday," meteorologist Andy Tingler said.

Firefighters should get some relief from Monday's scorching temperatures. Temperatures are predicted to reach the upper 70s today, fall to the mid-50s tonight and reach the mid-70s Wednesday.

Winds are also supposed to moderate.

"Wednesday should be pretty low, around 5 mph," Tingler said.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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