Minnesota wildfire jumps highway, triggers more evacuations

Aug 20, 2021, 8:27 AM | Updated: 4:34 pm

An aircraft drops red fire retardant onto the Greenwood Fire, about 50 miles north of Duluth, Minn....

An aircraft drops red fire retardant onto the Greenwood Fire, about 50 miles north of Duluth, Minn., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, as seen from an airplane above the temporary flight restriction zone. (Alex Korman/Star Tribune via AP)

(Alex Korman/Star Tribune via AP)

FINLAND, Minn. (AP) — Authorities fighting a northeastern Minnesota wildfire ordered additional evacuations Friday after the blaze jumped a highway before an anticipated shift in the wind this weekend that could put more properties in danger.

The U.S. Forest Service sent in ground crews and water-dropping aircraft after the Greenwood Fire crossed over to the west side of Lake County Highway 2, just north of Stony Lake. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was evacuating residents from the Stony Lake and Sand Lake areas near where Highway 2 intersects with Minnesota Highway 1.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were affected, Superior National Forest spokeswoman Joanna Gilkeson said. The area is dotted with seasonal cabins and some year-round residences. Earlier in the week, authorities evacuated around 90 residents from the McDougal Lake area.

The Forest Service also ordered an expanded closure of part of the southern Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the northeast, due to a blaze called the Whelp Fire, which has grown to 35 to 40 acres (14 to 16 hectares.) The closure includes the popular Sawbill entry point for overnight trips, though it remains open for day trips. No ground crews have been sent in because that fire is in a remote spot, so water scooping planes and helicopters were hitting it from the air. Ranger crews were paddling the area to search for visitors.

Forest Service officials warned home and cabin owners at a public meeting Thursday evening in the small town of Finland that the winds could shift this weekend, putting their properties in danger, Minnesota Public Radio reported Friday.

The fire has grown to 7.4 square miles (19 square kilometers) since it was first spotted Sunday. The Forest Service says it was caused by lightening. Around 200 firefighters are now working on the blaze, coming from as far away as Mississippi and Colorado. So far it has burned mostly north and west into the forest, and no structures have burned.

The concern now is a cold front expected Saturday, something that incident commander Brian Pisarek said was keeping him up at night. He told the crowd that the front is expected to bring strong winds from the northwest, which could push the fire aggressively to the east, toward homes.

“The big unknown is this system coming through, is it going to be wet? If it comes through wet, and we get three-quarters of an inch of rain on it, and that happens before the wind, we’re golden,” he said.

But if the winds pick up and it doesn’t rain, Pisarek said, the fire could get out of control quickly.

“I don’t want to give illusions that this is going to be a good weekend for us,” he said. “It’s going to be tough.”

Drought conditions in western states, which extend as far east as Minnesota, are fueling around 100 wildfires. California has already surpassed the acreage burned at this point last year, which ended up setting the record. In northeastern Minnesota, heat, low humidity and a tinder-dry forest have fueled the Greenwood Lake fire, which is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of the small town of Isabella.

“It’s the summer from hell, for watching the forest get compromised,” said Doug Lande, who lives on an area farm.

On Wednesday, winds pushed the fire directly toward his property. Lande, a former firefighter, said aircraft likely saved his house by dumping water and fire retardant all around it.

“They slurried the house with retardant and about 20 acres around the farmstead. That lasts only so long. Now, I’m wondering when the next run of the fire will be at the house.”

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Minnesota wildfire jumps highway, triggers more evacuations