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Boundary Waters wildfire growing slowly

A fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness about 12 miles northwest of Ely continues to slowly grow. The Cummings Lake fire is now estimated to have burned across about 40 acres, Becca Manlove, spokeswoman for the Kawishiwi Ranger Distri...

Cummings Lake fire
A view of the Cummings Lake fire, about 12 miles northwest of Ely, from a canoe on the lake. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

A fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness about 12 miles northwest of Ely continues to slowly grow.

The Cummings Lake fire is now estimated to have burned across about 40 acres, Becca Manlove, spokeswoman for the Kawishiwi Ranger District of the Superior National Forest, said this afternoon. That's up from an estimated 30 acres Monday.

Some 16 Forest Service personnel are on the ground cutting trees and digging a line around the fire that's burning in a black spruce swamp.

Helicopters and airplanes also may be used to drop water on the fire as needed, Manlove said, but the fact that ground crews are working in the area is a sign the fire isn't considered severe or fast-moving. Winds in the area remain light, helping firefighters get a leg up on the blaze.

"It's growing some -- they didn't get any rain up there at all -- but it's not growing fast,'' she said. "We hope one of the aircraft can use GPS to give us a better estimate on the size maybe yet today."

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A 10-person ground crew from Michigan is expected to be flown into the fire today to relieve local crews so they can be ready to respond quickly to any new fires that are reported.

It's not clear if the fire started from lightning or a campfire that spread. Fire experts will check for clues on the origin once the fire is under control.

The BWCAW remains completely open for canoe travel and camping, but camping is not recommended on nearby Otter Lake because of smoke. So far there are no restrictions on campfires in the area although that could change any day if rain does not fall.

The fire, one of several reported across northern Minnesota in recent days, comes one year after the 93,000-acre Pagami Creek fire in the BWCAW. Forest Service officials this summer have directed that most wilderness fires be attacked quickly to avoid taking up valuable resources -- crews, equipment and money -- needed to fight fires closer to developed areas.

But Superior National Forest officials have said the Cummings Lake fire would have been battled even without that temporary directive because conditions are dry. Fire danger across most of the Northland is listed as high, with very high conditions along the Ontario border from Lake County to the North Dakota line.

Weather conditions should improve as the week progresses. The National Weather Service in Duluth says there's a good chance for rain tonight and Wednesday morning across Northeastern Minnesota, which should help slow the fire, but there's also a chance for lightning, which could spur more fires if ample rain doesn't fall.

Meanwhile cooler temperatures -- with highs in the 60s instead of the recent 80s -- are expected by the end of the week, also helping calm fire conditions.

A second, similar-sized fire is burning just across the Canadian border on the north shore of Basswood Lake at Norway Point, adding smoke to the area sky. Other fires were battled Monday near Gheen and Babbitt on state forest land.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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