Boundary Waters fire shows signs of slowing

About 100,000 acres of the northern Minnesota area has been burnt so far.

by Nick Sudheimer

Forest fires have ripped through nearly 160 square miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the Canadian border.

After taking a turn for the worse earlier this week, the fire in MinnesotaâÄôs north woods âÄî one of the largest in state history âÄî showed signs of slowing down Wednesday as winds calmed and cooler temperatures moved over the area.

While no structures have been damaged and no one has been reported hurt, roughly 50 nearby buildings have been evacuated and 120 campers were rushed out of the Boundary Waters earlier this week.

The blaze started Aug. 18 from a lightning strike, but didnâÄôt grow out of control until unexpected wind gusts triggered its rapid spread earlier this week.

Kris Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, said the fire had âÄúunprecedented growth.âÄù

Smoke and ash plumes from northern Minnesota were blown hundreds of miles, forcing the Milwaukee Brewers to close the retractable roof for their home game Tuesday.

Approximately 300 firefighters are in the area to battle the fire, said Jim Grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order Tuesday allowing the Minnesota National Guard to assist.

Lee Frelich, director of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Center for Forest Ecology, said that until there is significant rain or snowfall, there is little they can do to fight the blaze.

âÄúAny rain will be helpfulâĦbut it will take a couple of inches to really put it out,âÄù Frelich said.

Light showers fell on the BWCAW on Wednesday, but significant rainfall isnâÄôt expected in the near future, said Carol Christenson, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. High pressure is moving into the area which will bring lighter winds for the next couple of days âÄî a good sign, she said.

In the meantime, three airplanes and four helicopters have been dropping water on the fire. Large moving equipment is being used to plow paths that will prevent the fire from spreading.

Reichenbach said the calmer weather is an encouraging sign to personnel, but 30 entry points to the BWCAW have been closed âÄî less than half of the overall access points.

Frelich explained that the fire wasnâÄôt put out when it started in mid-August because fires are natural in this type of forest, and many of its tree species actually rely on fire. The BWCAW has a âÄúlet burnâÄù policy, he said.

 âÄúFor two weeks, this fire was only a few hundred acres,âÄù Frelich said. âÄúThereâÄôs no way anybody at that point could have judged whether it would just [grow to] 1,000 acres and go out, or whether it was going to be a 100,000 acre [fire] like it is.âÄù

Frelich added that a study tracing the fire history of the BWCAW back 400 years shows a fire of this size has occurred about once a decade. The 2007 Ham Lake fire in the BWCAW spread across 118 square miles and caused more than $10 million in damages.

âÄúFor the wilderness in the Boundary Waters, this is a perfectly natural event,âÄù Frelich said. âÄúItâÄôs part of the natural function of the ecosystem to have these types of fires.âÄù

The Associated Press contributed to this report.