Closure of popular wilderness area extended because of fires

Aug 25, 2021, 5:52 AM | Updated: 9:19 pm
This image provided by the USDA Forest Service, shows a smoky, foggy sunrise along the Gunflint Tra...

This image provided by the USDA Forest Service, shows a smoky, foggy sunrise along the Gunflint Trail on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. Residents well to the north along the upper Gunflint Trail, a dead-end highway that's a popular jumping off spot for Boundary Waters trips, were told Monday night to stand by in case they also needed to evacuate because of wildfires. (Sarah Shapiro/USDA Forest Service via AP)

(Sarah Shapiro/USDA Forest Service via AP)

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — U.S. Forest Service officials on Wednesday extended the closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after Minnesota’s largest wildfire doubled in size.

The Greenwood Lake fire burning in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota grew to about 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) Monday, and four new smaller fires ignited within the BWCA. By Wednesday, the size was estimated at 34 square miles (88 square kilometers).

Forest officials decided to keep the popular wilderness closed another week, to Sept. 3, dealing a blow to tourists who spent months planning their trips there and to the outfitters and other businesses serving the 1 million-acre Boundary Waters.

“It’s a bummer for sure,” Sue Prom, co-owner of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, wrote on her blog Wednesday. “People have canoe trips planned that have to be cancelled, folks are being evacuated from their cabins and homes and there’s smoke in the air. Fire fighters are exhausted and people’s nerves are frayed. Business owners are wondering how they will make it through the winter without the income they were expecting during the last two weeks of August and potentially into September. It isn’t all gloom and doom though. No lives have been lost, there have been no significant injuries and damage to private property has so far been relatively little.”

On Wednesday, officials also closed Forest Service lands along the scenic upper Gunflint Trail, a dead-end paved road deep into the wilderness, including the Trails End and Iron Lake campgrounds and the Magnetic Rock Hiking Trail. The closure will last at least a week. That followed an order from the Cook County Sheriff’s office Monday for residents in that area to prepare in case they eventually need to evacuate. The road itself and resorts along it remain open.

There are now 13 fires burning in the Superior National Forest, although not all are being actively fought and some have been contained, the Star Tribune reported. The Petit, Gabi, Rice Bay and Second Creek fires started Monday in the BWCA.

Several fires caused by lightning have burned in the wilderness during this summer’s drought conditions, while the much bigger Greenwood Lake fire just to the south has forced the evacuation of about 280 homes and cabins since it was spotted Aug. 15 about 15 miles (24 kilometers) southwest of the town of Isabella.

Forest officials have also kept a nervous eye on fires burning just across the Canadian border, in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, which led them to close some parts of the Boundary Waters north of Ely earlier this summer.

But when the John Ek fire took off late last week, forest officials decided to close the entire wilderness area as a precaution. They said that fire and the Greenwood Lake fire had stretched their resources too thin to ensure the safety of paddlers and campers. Neither fire grew much Tuesday thanks to better weather, Forest Service officials said.

More than 400 crew members are fighting the forest fires.

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Closure of popular wilderness area extended because of fires