Northern Minn. forest fire still spreading

The forest fire raging east of Ely is now “in excess of 60,000 acres” after a wind-stoked day and night of massive expansion, a fire official said Tuesday morning.

“It ran 12 miles yesterday, which is really something,” said Doug Anderson, public information officer for the Pagami Creek Fire, which is burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness east of popular Lake One.

The fire has likely escaped the southern wilderness boundary toward the community of Isabella, where fire engines from throughout the Iron Range are descending, along with bulldozers and other equipment, to fight the fire, Anderson said.

No injuries have been reported, and no major structures have been burned, but with strong winds from the north and west predicted for today and tomorrow, the fire is likely to continue to grow.

More than 100 campers have been evacuated, and two public safety workers aiding in evacuations needed to be rescued and flown to safety yesterday, Anderson said.

The pair was on Island-studded Lake Insula escorting canoe-campers away from the fire, which was torching the southern shore of the lake and hopping from island to island – a phenomenon of a powerful forest fire. Another telltale sign of a mighty fire is the creation of its own strong winds. In this case, the fire quickly whipped Lake Insula into a froth, with 4-foot waves – dangerous conditions for canoes.

“A couple of our public safety guys had to kind of cling to a rock until a float plane could come and get them out,” Anderson said. “It was a combination of fire and wind. It wasn’t as hair-raising as it sounds, though.”

Other paddlers on other portions of the lake were able to paddle and portage their way to safety.

Officials are trying to locate the owner of one vehicle parked at a landing as part of an accounting of campers potentially in harm’s way, but Anderson said he wasn’t aware of any campers being declared past due.

Because fires are beneficial to the forest, crews generally do not fight forest fires inside the BWCAW – not that anything short of a major rain or snowstorm could stop a fire this large. However, once it threatens areas outside the wilderness, active fire suppression begins. That’s what’s happening around Isabella, where some residents have been evacuated from homes.

A number of aircraft and an ever-growing army of firefighters are now fighting the fire, although resources might be limited by firefighting needs in Texas.

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