UPDATE: Crews building lines to contain wildfire burning in Boundary Waters near Ely

Fourteen firefighters have spent the day building control lines in an effort to contain a wildfire burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness northwest of Ely.

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)

Fourteen firefighters have spent the day building control lines in an effort to contain a wildfire burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness northwest of Ely.

The crews are battling the Cummings Lake fire, now estimated at more than 30 acres in size, amid black spruce in a lowland area about 12 miles northwest of Ely, according to Superior National Forest information officer Becca Manlove. No structures are immediately threatened by the flames.

The fire is burning on a peninsula separating the west side of Cummings Lake from the northeast side of Otter Lake. The cause of the fire, first reported Sunday afternoon, is not known at this time. There are no official closures in the Boundary Waters at this time, although camping on Otter Lake is not recommended.

A type-III helicopter worked the fire today, Manlove said, with CL-215 water bombers on standby. Five aircraft worked the blaze on Sunday.

Crews on the ground today completed a control line on the blaze's eastern flank. Aerial suppression efforts held the western flank in check this morning until a ground crew was able to start building line there in the afternoon, from Otter Lake north toward the head of the fire. Other personnel are building a control line from Cummings Lake west toward the head of the fire, to contain the active northern flank of the fire.


Manlove said residents and visitors should be aware that there will be fire patrols flown today in the Ely area, along with aerial fire suppression efforts. There's also smoke in the air from the Cummings Lake fire and a second, similar-sized fire burning just across the Canadian border, on the north shore of Basswood Lake at Norway Point.

That smoke may make it seem like the fires are closer to developed areas than they actually are, Manlove said. She said both fires are being monitored and pose no immediate threat to structures.

Fire danger remains high across the Northland after an extended period of warm, dry weather.

  • The Basswood Lake fire, known as Fort Frances No. 53 or the Norway Point fire, is estimated at about 20 to 30 acres, and remains on the Canadian side of the border. It moved farther to the east today and is being monitored by fire crews on both sides of the border.
  • Fire patrols flying over the Ely area today discovered a small wildfire burning on the southwest side of Cedar Lake, near a gravel pit off the Cloquet Line. That's just outside Winton, or about five miles northeast of Ely. The quarter-acre fire was attacked by Forest Service floatplanes, a helicopter and ground crews, and crews have constructed a line around the entire blaze. Crews were mopping up hot spots at last report.


    Crews quickly attacked the Cummings Lake fire after it was reported Sunday. Earlier this year, the Forest Service directed its forest supervisors to attack and extinguish wilderness fires so money, personnel, aircraft and other resources aren't tied up fighting fires that started small and grew out of control.

    That temporary directive put on hold the usual Forest Service fire policy to often let fires burn across the agency's 429 wilderness areas that cover more than 36 million acres, including the BWCAW.

    The new policy is in contrast to last year's Pagami Creek fire southeast of Ely, which started Aug. 18, 2011, with a lightning strike and, like hundreds of others, burned slowly at first and was not actively attacked by fire crews. Most lightning fires in the 1.1 million-acre BWCAW smolder and die without getting big. And even if the fires grow, Forest Service policy has been to allow them to burn to help renew the forest.

    But by the time Forest Service fire officials realized the Pagami Creek fire could grow too big and possibly escape the wilderness -- thanks to unprecedented dry, hot weather -- it was too late. It took weeks, nearly 1,000 firefighters from across the country and autumn rains and snow before the fire was officially declared out, having burned across 93,000 acres -- Minnesota's largest wildfire in more than 70 years. The battle cost more than $23 million.

    Brenda Halter, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, told the News Tribune earlier this year that the new policy was aimed at saving money and keeping wildland firefighters where they are most needed -- near developed, populated areas -- and wasn't related to the Pagami Creek fire.

  • Cummings Lake fire
    A Forest Service De Havilland Beaver floatplane delivers a firefighting crew and supplies to the scene of the Cummings Lake fire northwest of Ely. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

    What To Read Next
    Get Local