GUNFLINT LAKE -- Many people were skeptical in 2000 when promoters of a fire-protection system said they had the solution for saving homes and cabins from raging forest fires, especially fires near any of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.
The system uses a simple gas or propane pump to pull water out of lakes and then spray it, using golf course-like sprinklers, over buildings and yards.
Sprinklers were touted by Gunflint Trail resident George Carlson of Poplar Lake as a way to defend homes, lodges and cabins in the Superior National Forest that were facing heightened fire danger after the 1999 windstorm that downed millions of trees in the area.
Skeptics said simply spraying water on buildings couldn't stop a full-force wildfire. But dozens of still-standing buildings along the end of the Gunflint Trail are now proving them wrong.
Of the more than 45 structures that have burned in the Ham Lake fire since Sunday, only one or two had operating sprinkler systems.
"Basically, the buildings with sprinklers are still there. Those that didn't have them are gone," said Don Kufahl, a lieutenant with the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department, who lives on Saganaga Lake.
Seagull Lake resident Tony Faras returned briefly to his home Tuesday and was amazed -- not at the destruction all around his property caused Sunday by the fire, but at how green and wet his yard was. His cabin, directly in the path of the fire, was unscathed.
During the fire, one of Faras' neighbors refused to evacuate and kept several sprinkler systems operating, including Faras'. Local fire crews and some residents have been keeping the pumps running while the area has been evacuated since Sunday, exchanging propane tanks that last a little more than a day.
"We went in yesterday and there was 5 inches of rain in the rain gauge when we haven't had a cloud in weeks," Faras said. "We had water in our basement because the sump pump quit. I don't think anyone was ever so happy to have water in their basement."
Jan Sivertson hadn't had time to get to her Sea-gull Lake cabin and turn her sprinkler system on before the fire hit. Ironically, the idle sprinkler heads survived the fire. Her cabin was destroyed.
Faras said the contrast between his lush, green yard, within the reach of sprinklers, and the blackened area where the fire raged just outside his yard was stunning. Within reach of the sprinklers, Faras' shed with gasoline tanks was untouched. His big LP gas tank was intact.
A few feet away, outside the reach of sprinklers, two of his aluminum boats, on trailers for the winter, burned so hot that they melted.
"We had birds and squirrels at the bird feeder like nothing ever happened. But get outside that sprinkled area, and it's like a wasteland," Faras said Wednesday.
Fire-safety experts across the Northland are now touting sprinkler systems as effective fire protection for rural homes and cabins anywhere wildfires are a threat. They are being used in California and have been successful in Canada.
A system for a large cabin and yard costs about $5,000 to install, local residents said. And they aren't without problems. At Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground on Tuesday, Bob Baker Sr. was making sure sprinkler heads were unplugged and the system was running in case the Ham Lake fire changes direction. The resort had to replace two expensive pumps this week after they froze and cracked last autumn during an unexpected early freeze.
But, along with removing burnable brush from around buildings, thinning trees and widening driveways to make sure fire engines can pass, the sprinklers are proving to be solid piece of mind for rural residents.
Kufahl estimated about one-third of Gunflint Trail property owners have sprinkler systems.
The systems use a simple theory of fire science that says robbing fires of heat and fuel can slow or stop them. Fires simply have a hard time burning through high humidity and damp fuel. They are most effective when they are operating for at least 24 hours before the fire hits.
The systems are especially effective in guarding against spot fires, started by burning embers that fall from the sky onto dry lawns and roofs. But sprinklers have shown they can deflect a moving fire front.
"I wasn't sure if they would really save a structure in a real big fire. But we've seen in the last couple of days that they are incredibly effective," said Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk. "I first noticed it during the  Alpine fire when I walked into a homeowner's yard with a sprinkler going. It was an 80-degree day and suddenly the temperature goes down about 20 degrees and the humidity goes up to about 100 percent. It's an amazing zone of protection. ... They have saved a lot of people's dreams up here."