Evacuations ordered as Boundary Waters fire spreads outside park

The Pagami Creek forest fire exploded in size Monday to cover more than 16,000 acres, spreading outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time and heading closer to homes and cabins.

BWCAW fire
Strong winds expanded the fire to burn across 3,500 acres by Sunday and more than 11,000 acres Monday morning. The fire could double again in size Tuesday. (Gene Shaw / for the News Tribune)

The Pagami Creek forest fire exploded in size Monday to cover more than 16,000 acres, spreading outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time and heading closer to homes and cabins.

The fire has forced Lake County and Superior National Forest officials to close several county and Forest Service roads north of Minnesota Highway 1 between Ely and Isabella, and some residents and campers are being asked to evacuate the area.

The "precautionary evacuation" area included Lake County Road 7 from Four Mile Grade to Kawishiwi Lake; Cramer Road from Four Mile Grade to Kawishiwi Lake; Wanless Road from County Road 7 to Homestead Lake.

"With no real rain in site this is a precautionary move because that's the direction the fire continues to move," said Becca Manlove, spokeswoman for the interagency team battling the fire.

Smoke from the fire is obscuring so much of the ground that pilots Monday were unable to give an accurate description of how much land has been burned over.


"But it's safe to say it's likely significantly more than 16,000 acres," Manlove told the News Tribune on Monday night.

It's the largest wildfire in Minnesota since May 2007 when the Ham Lake fire burned over 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, destroying 163 buildings along and near the Gunflint Trail.

The Pagami Creek fire started with a lightning strike Aug. 18, smoldered for a week or so and then grew to 130 acres on its own. Fire crews burned an additional 2,000 acres intentionally around the fire to keep it from growing into populated areas, especially north and west. But the fire continues to grow south and east and now has burned over some 25 square miles.

Fires in the wilderness generally are allowed to run their course because it renews the forest naturally. But officials have been leery of this fire from the start because of drought conditions and they now are trying to stop it as soon as possible.

More than 60 firefighters from multi-agency fire crews continue to battle the blaze on the ground, and five more 20-person teams from the national system of wildland fire crews are on the way, Manlove said. Officials said it has been difficult putting together the usual "overhead team" of national fire experts because so many fires are burning in Texas and elsewhere.

It's also harder to get firefighting aircraft. Two large state-owned water-dropping CL-215 airplanes continue to fight the blaze, along with one smaller water-scooping plane and a small helicopter. A large water-dropping helicopter also has been ordered from outside the state.

"But when the winds are as strong as they have been, and are supposed to be, there's really nothing you can do to stop it," said Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District ranger for the Superior National Forest.

Van Every said the fire apparently has spread outside the wilderness Monday for the first time. It had been a primary goal of the Forest Service to keep the blaze from heading north toward the highly developed area along Fernberg Road, and to keep it from spreading outside the BWCAW.


"We're really facing unprecedented conditions with how dry it is and with the amount of northwest winds we've been getting without any moisture with it," Van Every said.

Severe storms moved through the area Monday afternoon but dropped less than one-tenth of an inch in the fire area, Manlove said. Worse, the storms and cold front speeding across the region brought wind gusts of more than 30 miles per hour. Two new fires started across the Superior National Forest Monday, likely spurred by lightning from thunderstorms that offered little or no rain.

Cooler weather will help starting Tuesday, but winds are expected to be gusty throughout the day with little or no chance for significant rain in the forecast. The cooler air also will be very dry, which helps keep trees, grass, leaves and brush ready to burn.

"What we really need is a lot of rain, and that doesn't appear to be in the picture," Van Every said.

Parts of Northeastern Minnesota are in an extreme drought condition, with little rain since July in the area of the fire. Fire officials have said it could now take until winter snows fall before the fire is fully out.

Several popular entry points to the BWCAW east of Ely have been closed, with more areas set to be closed today depending on where the fire moves. A fire ban remains in effect for the BWCAW during the day, with fires allowed only after 6 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources imposed a fire ban in all areas of Northern Minnesota. The temporary burning restrictions mean the state will not give out burning permits for burning brush or yard waste until conditions improve. Small campfires in developed campfire pits or structures are allowed.

Related Topics: ELYFIRES
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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