ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL — Officials were minutes away from issuing an evacuation order for the end of the Gunflint Trail on Monday.
The John Ek Fire burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness had nearly doubled in size to 1,500 acres that afternoon and was heading toward the Gunflint.
But after a drop in temperatures and shift in wind, officials opted for a “pre-evacuation status” instead.
Such a recommendation puts residents on standby — medication, pets and valuables should be ready to go. And their rooftop sprinkler systems should run for 2 hours every evening.
The Gunflint Trail is uniquely prepared for such scenarios. Busy fire seasons in the mid-to-late 2000s — culminating with the Ham Lake fire of 2007, which destroyed 133 structures near the end of the trail — led to refined evacuation plans and inspired residents to install sprinkler systems on their homes and cabins to ward off wildfires.
But for 14 years, those systems have largely been unused. No major fires have threatened the trail.
“It’s bringing back the memories, brings back history that we’ve gone through,” said Dan Baumann, an assistant fire chief and senior medic with the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department. He was the fire chief during the Ham Lake fire. “People are more proactive in being prepared.”
But despite their preparations, he said this week was a wake-up call for residents who are now busy clearing brush around their cabins so fire is less likely to reach their structure — called Firewise, a proven method of reducing property damage in a wildfire — and testing their sprinkler systems.
“It kind of wakes you up a little bit because we’ve had it pretty good the last couple of years not to worry about much,” Baumann said.
Michael Valentini, a volunteer firefighter and contractor who installs sprinkler systems, has been busy this week helping residents who finally tested their systems after the pre-evacuation notice, only to discover something was wrong.
“Before the pandemic, it was all toilet paper,” Valentini said. “Now it’s all propane and PVC.”
Sprinklers create a 'humidity bubble'
Officials recommend systems have two propane tanks: a 20-pound and a 50-pound tank.
In a pre-evacuation, a system should run for 2 hours every evening to help wet things down, using fuel from the 20-pound tank. That might require a refill every three days or so but several resorts are filling tanks up for a $10 donation to the fire department.
But in an evacuation, property owners are told to power their sprinkler systems using the 50-pound propane tank before they leave, which should be enough for 24 hours.
“That system will deliver two to three inches of rain, and it becomes a humidity bubble — fire will literally pass it,” Baumann said. “They’re not always foolproof, but what we have found is when you incorporate Firewise — keeping balsam trees and stuff away and making sure you’re surrounded with the sprinkler system — the humidity level is very solid.”
During the Ham Lake Fire, 60 properties — a total of up to 150 structures — on Seagull and Saganaga lakes had operating sprinkler systems. Only one cabin burned.
Valentini said that the destroyed cabin was elevated on piers, allowing an ember to catch something underneath it.
“They had a whole bunch of tinder dry stuff under the cabin, something blew underneath the cabin and burned the cabin from the bottom up,” Valentini said. “The sprinkler system was still going.”
During a wildfire, Baumann remembers walking to a cabin that had sprinklers. He could feel the humidity and cool air — “a circle of green,” he called it.
“Everything around them was burned, but their cabin? Everything was good,” Baumann said.
At Golden Eagle Lodge, a Gunflint Trail resort that Baumann owned for 44 years until selling it to his son and daughter-in-law last year, three pump systems pull water from Flour Lake, releasing it over 20 of their 26 structures.
Running them during the summer, in addition to regular tests, has other benefits too.
“Everytime you run them, it’s like getting a couple inches of rain,” co-owner Ruth Wagner said. “So when we’re in a drought like this, it keeps the foliage around the cabin green. It keeps them looking nice and inviting for people to stay in. And also on a really hot day, you can run them to cool the cabin down.”
Past fires fuel preparedness
The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department formed after the Windigo Lodge burned in 1991, killing seven people.
Before, each resort had its own water pump and residents and resort owners would call each other up to help extinguish a fire. But the Windigo fire inspired residents and resort owners to establish a more formal, properly-trained department.
Grants and donations after the Ham Lake fire further bolstered their efforts..
Today, the department has more than 30 members, wilderness search and rescue equipment and crews, specialized fire trucks and ambulances and three stations along the Gunflint Trail, two of which have a community center residents can use to access wifi or hold events. In a wildfire, that space is then transformed into an incident command post for agencies battling the blaze.
At Fire Hall 3, near the end of the Gunflint, where the Ham Like fire burned, the space is filled with white folding tables each with a work station dedicated to specific tasks — weather, logistics, public information, finance, etc. It’s where almost 70 firefighters and staff are operating out of as they monitor, and soon combat, the John Ek and Whelp fires burning in the BWCAW.
“This is where we station to help coordinate wildland firefighting activities that are going on,“ said Sarah Shapiro, the command posts’ public information officer.
Sprinkler systems have also expanded.
Gunflint residents began installing them after the 1999 blowdown in the BWCAW.
When they proved their worth in the Ham Lake fire, millions in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped more Gunflint structures install such systems.
Baumann and Valentini estimate over 800 have been installed throughout Cook County.
They’ve also managed issues with sprinkler systems to make them more reliable.
Brass sprinkler heads tend to break. Gasoline will degrade if left to sit, while propane remains stable. The first few feet of line off the pump should be rubber, otherwise the pump's vibrations will crack PVC. Intake hoses should be long enough to reach the water source, even in low-water years. Pipes running from the pumps to the sprinklers should be buried or the path they follow should be wet by sprinklers to prevent fire damage.
The fire department can also tie into the systems and use them as a hydrant.
If a sprinkler system is operable and the property owner has evacuated, fire crews will make sure it’s running as they check properties.
While it’s been 14 years since the last major fire, Baumann feels the Gunflint is prepared for the next one.
“We’ve learned quite a bit in what we’ve gone through. We’ve progressed in all aspects of being prepared … where we’ve gotten today is because of past history,” Baumann said.