By Dennis Lien
A large blaze in the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness didn't appear to spread much Friday, prompting fire officials to hold their collective breath until anticipated relief from rain arrives Sunday morning.
Slightly warmer weather and gustier winds were expected today, and officials fear that could propel the fire that has been relatively subdued for the past three days after huge flare-ups earlier this week.
With winds now coming from the south and southwest, the fire is edging toward an area of the BWCA Wilderness filled with millions of downed, rotting trees from a 1999 windstorm.
"If it gets into the blowdown, it's going to burn hot and fast,'' said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a public information officer for the interagency team fighting the Pagami Creek fire. "That is the main concern over the weekend and into early next week.''
Until late this week, the fire had been pushing southeasterly, advancing just out of the federal wilderness and toward homes and cabins. Despite its size, only one building - a warden's cabin - has burned so far.
Firefighters were cutting fire breaks and moving water hoses north and northeast of the fire Friday, hoping to limit its spread until Sunday, when rain is forecast after midnight. Rain also is possible Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Friday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton, Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, who represents northeastern Minnesota, toured the fire by air.
The fire, which has burned an estimated 100,000 acres, was started by a lightning strike Aug. 18 in the Pagami Creek area near Lake One. After moving at a crawl for weeks, it surged Sunday and Monday before slowing appreciably as temperatures dropped and winds slowed.
With better mapping now available, officials said the acreage of the fire area might be reduced. Smoke and clouds had obscured the burn, leading officials to believe some areas had burned that actually hadn't.
Central parts of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border remain closed to canoeists, but areas north and west of Ely, Minn., and some entry points along the Gunflint Trail are open. Many resorts and lodges also remain open.
About 430 firefighters from across the country are still battling the blaze.
The region, which has received less precipitation since April than any other part of the state, remains exceptionally dry.
On Friday, all types of campfires were banned on national forest lands within the Superior National Forest, including the BWCA Wilderness. Pressurized liquid gas stoves, however, are allowed.
In addition, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced campfire and open fire restrictions in Cook, Lake, Koochiching, Itasca and northern St. Louis counties.
Dennis Lien can be reached at 651-228-5588.