Boundary Waters Fire Forces Evacuations Firefighters from around the country are converging on the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota, where a wildfire has been burning out of control for more than a week. The fire has burned 50,000 acres and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.
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Boundary Waters Fire Forces Evacuations

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Boundary Waters Fire Forces Evacuations

Boundary Waters Fire Forces Evacuations

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Another massive wildfire has been burning for more than a week in a remote, but much-loved wilderness in northern Minnesota and Canada, the Boundary Waters. Fifty thousand acres have burned, scores of homes had been destroyed and hundreds of people had been forced to evacuate.

Minnesota Public Radio's Stephanie Hemphill has been up to the border region, and sent us this report.

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: The Gunflint Trail is a two-lane road that winds away from Lake Superior and dead ends at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - an area of 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 here. And many developed 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. They were headed into the wilderness when another group's campfire apparently turned into an inferno.

Mr. CHUCK SAMS (Camper): We turned around and saw this big plume and headed back to our campsite.

HEMPHILL: They were trying to decide what to do when a couple of firefighters paddled up to their campsite.

Mr. SAMS: Then they said we could evacuate a primitive trail that's backed away from the fire. So we ended up portaging through, probably mile and a half.

HEMPHILL: The fire grew fast right from the beginning. At first, it drove north into Canada. Then it veered east, and then doubled back to the south. At times, tall columns of smoke rise 100 feet or more into the air. Patrolling the road from his pickup, firefighter Dick Birger says they are bad signs.

Mr. DICK BERGER (Firefighter): When you see a plume like that, that's actually creating its own weather. You get unpredictable fire behavior. A lot of BTUs of energy are being released and rising, but it's causing its own squirrely winds.

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

Ms. DARIA DAY (Firefighter): You see the intensity in the charring on the trees all the way to the top. You know, most of these trees are torched south.

HEMPHILL: 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 here in three years. Back in 1999, a huge storm knocked down millions of trees, and a jumble of dead trunks is available fuel for fires.

And it's been very dry. Several winters have failed to produce the usual amount of snow. And even the standing pines and balsams are almost as dry as the dead trunks lying on the ground. Many people here have installed sprinkler systems around their homes and cabins. And they work. Local volunteer firefighters have been visiting each property nearly everyday to make sure of it.

Fire chief Dan Baumann says it's like walking into another world.

Mr. DAN BAUMANN (Fire Chief): When you walk in, it was cold and it was wet, and it, I mean, you left your footprints on the ground. It's definitely their oases.

HEMPHILL: The sprinklers have saved a lot of houses, but the fire has already destroyed about 50 homes and cabins. Officials say fighting the fire has so far costs 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.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Hemphill.

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