Boundary Waters Fire Forces Evacuations

A massive wildfire has been burning for more than a week in the remote area of Minnesota and Canada centering on the the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Fifty-thousand acres have burned, destroying more than 130 structures, 62 of them houses, and forcing hundreds to evacuate.

The Gunflint Trail is a two-lane road that winds away from Lake Superior and dead-ends at the Boundary Waters, an area covering 1,500 square miles.

Along the road are resorts and canoe outfitters and a few cabins. But on each side, the wilderness of lakes and rivers and steep hills and trees stretches for miles. People come from all over the world to canoe the Boundary Waters, and many develop an intense connection to the land.

Normally at this time of year it's cool and rainy. There might even be patches of snow left from the winter. But this year hot weather came early.

Chuck Sams was on a canoe trip with friends, headed into the wilderness, when another group's campfire apparently turned into an inferno. They were trying to decide what to do when a couple of firefighters paddled up to their campsite.

"They said we could evacuate on a primitive trail that's back away from fire," Sams said. "So we ended up portaging for probably a mile-and-a-half."

The fire grew fast right from the beginning. At first it drove north into Canada. Then it veered east and doubled back to the south.

Tall columns of smoke that rise a hundred feet or more into the air are a bad sign, according to firefighter Dick Birger, on patrol in his truck.

"When you see a plume like that, that's actually creating its own weather, you get unpredictable fire behavior," Birger said. "A lot of BTUs are being released and rising. It's causing its own squirrelly winds."

And those winds have pushed the fire fast and furious. Firefighter Daria Day inspects an area where several cabins burned.

"You see the intensity in the charring on the trees, all the way to the top," Day observed.

The organic matter on the ground is still alive. But that means it's still sitting there, ready to burn, if the fire doubles back and attacks this area again.

This is the fourth major fire for the region in three years.

Back in 1999, a huge storm knocked down millions of trees. The jumble of dead trunks is now available fuel for fires.

And it's been very dry. Several winters have failed to produce the usual amount of snow. The standing pines and balsams are almost as dry as the dead trunks lying on the ground.

Many people have installed sprinkler systems around their homes and cabins. And they work. Local volunteer firefighters have been visiting each property nearly every day to make sure of it. Fire Chief Dan Baumann says it's like walking into another world.

"You walked in, it was cold, and it was wet," Baumann said. "I mean you left your footprints in the ground."

The sprinklers have saved a lot of houses. But the fire has already destroyed more than 50 homes and cabins. Officials say fighting the fire has so far cost more than $2 million.

This is the opening weekend for fishing in Minnesota, and the lakes of the Boundary Waters would normally be swarming with anglers looking for walleye. But not this year, not until a good soaking rain stops this fire.

Minnesota Public Radio's Stephanie Hemphill reports.

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