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'It's been a scary time.' Isle Royale fire threatens historic cabins still used by families

The fire was 15% contained as of Tuesday. Only an outhouse had been destroyed.

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Trees crowd the Stack/Wolbrink camp on Minong (Hotel) Island in Isle Royale National Park on Aug. 7, 2021. A wild fire burned part of the island and close to the historic cabin. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A 200-acre fire burning in Isle Royale National Park is threatening historic cabins still used by the families that built them a century ago.

The Horne Fire, which is believed to have started by lightning on Aug. 10 near Duncan Bay and the Tobin-Duncan Portage Trail on the north side of the island, grew quickly over the weekend, fueled by high winds and dry conditions. By Sunday, it had reached 200 acres, hopped the ridge running down the middle of the island and moved beside Tobin Harbor where several families still occupy cabins in the summer, forcing several of them to evacuate or, if they were back on the mainland, wait nervously for news on whether their cabins survived.

"On Sunday when I got that first note that something was up, it was all-consuming," said John Snell, who had left the park earlier this month after spending several weeks at the cabin that his grandfather Roy Snell, a children's author, acquired in the 1930s. "All day long, all night long. All that goes through your mind."

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An aerial view of the Horne Fire burning in Isle Royale National Park on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. Minong (Hotel) Island is the one island in Tobin Harbor with smoke coming from it. Contributed / National Park Service

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An ember had even crossed the waters of Tobin Harbor, igniting a fire on Minong Island.

Photos from an airplane on Sunday show much of the small island's interior smoking. Charred trees go right up to the backside of the Wolbrink Camp , a historic but now unused cabin. That cabin and a single-room post office on the dock of Minong Island, where ferries used to drop mail for the families with cabins in Tobin Harbor, have so far survived.

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Boaters motor by Minong (Hotel) Island, background, in Isle Royale National Park on Aug. 6, 2021. The building on the island was used as a post office by cabin dwellers in the Tobin Harbor area. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"One outhouse was burned in the fire on Minong Island, but no other structures have been damaged at this time," the National Park Service said in a news release Tuesday.

The Horne Fire was 15% contained as of Tuesday, the park service said.

The park service said one of its "fire management objectives" is "to extinguish fire on Minong Island."

Crews from the National Park Service Hiawatha National Forest and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are now on Isle Royale to help.

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Contributed / National Park Service

"Their work includes patrols in Tobin Harbor to protect historic structures," the park service said.

"It's getting a little too close for comfort," said Snell, who can see Minong Island and its mail dock from the Snell Camp dock. "Especially hearing about the embers landing on the islands. There's no reason why it couldn't have been the Snell Camp versus Wolbrink versus Merritt Camp versus Gale."

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John Snell boats from Rock Harbor to Tobin Harbor in Isle Royale National Park on Aug. 4, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Chris Gale, who was also not on the island, has been relaying what he can learn about the fire from his home near Calumet, Michigan, to other families with cabins.

His cousin Jack Gale was forced to evacuate the cabin on Gale Island over the weekend and used his boat to help Grant Merritt and wife Marylin evacuate their family's cabin . The families are now at Isle Royale's Rock Harbor.

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The Merritt family evacuated their cabin (seen here Aug. 5, 2021) this week due to a nearby wildfire. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Chris said he's heard reports of a fire that was put out on Gale Island, but has been unable to confirm whether that's true. Just a few hundred feet of Tobin Harbor separate Gale Island from the Horne Fire.

"The Gale cabin is the closest to the fire right now," Chris said.

Chris' grandmother Alfreda Prince Gale purchased the island in 1935, just before the park service took over. The cabin, one of the largest in Tobin Harbor, has been a gathering spot for the Gales and other cabin dwellers.

Chris, now 73, has been coming out the island nearly every year, ever since he flew in a seaplane on his mother's lap when he was just 6 months old.

While he doesn't want to see the cabins in flames, he said, "If they go up, then it's their time."

Ellie Connolly's family has been coming to the cabin they call Cliff Crest since it was built in 1914 and positioned on a cliff overseeing the entrance of Tobin Harbor and just across a narrow strip of harbor from the Wolbrink cabin that almost burned this weekend.

"It's been a scary time," Connolly said.

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Cliff Crest cabin in Isle Royale National Park looks out over Tobin Harbor and Lake Superior on Aug. 6, 2021. A wildfire in the park is burning near the cabin. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

She said that while there have been fires around Isle Royale, she can't remember any that posed a threat to Tobin Harbor or its cabins.

But she was always told about the 1936 fire, which burned more than 27,000 acres, or 42 square miles, about one fifth of the island's area.

"We were brought up on stories about it so we know that can happen," Connolly said. "And we're lucky that the park jumped on this pretty fast and have been containing it as best they can."

Connolly and the others have been encouraged by the communication from Denice Swanke, Isle Royale National Park's superintendent, who provided the families with emails and maps Sunday afternoon as they all tried to learn about what had happened.

The cabins in Tobin Harbor and in several other locations on Isle Royale predate the island becoming a national park. Back then, families came to the island to mine, fish or vacation, buying up land — or in the case of some fishing families, squatting on the land. They built cabins, boat houses and docks.

Before Isle Royale became a national park in 1940, the park service sought to remove many of the structures by buying property from the owners. While some families opted to sell their properties, others negotiated lifetime leases, which allowed the people who used and their children to use the cabins in the summer for the remainder of their lives.

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The Horne Fire as seen from the Tobin Harbor seaplane dock, near Rock Harbor at Isle Royale National Park. Contributed / National Park Service

The life leases were later changed to special use permits and modified to add people who may have been left off the original life leases.

But when the last permit holder died, cabins were no longer allowed to be used by those families.

However, several families, including the Snells and Gales, have been allowed to continue using their cabins in exchange for volunteer work in the park after the permit holder dies.

Connolly's Cliff Crest remains under a special use permit under two family members — her oldest sister and cousin.

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