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Minnesota National Guard
Dayton orders National Guard helicopters to Pagami Creek Fire

ST PAUL, Minn - Gov Mark Dayton has directed four Minnesota National Guard UH-60 "Black Hawk" Helicopters and Army and Air National Guard Aviation support teams to assist firefighting efforts at the Pagami Creek Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

The choppers departed at 10 am Tuesday from the Army Aviation Support Facility in St Paul Army Capt Jonathan P Andrews said the unit regularly trains for these types of missions

The fire has grown to more than 60,000 acres, and crews don't expect today's weather conditions to help their efforts It began when lighting hit the Pagami Creek area on Aug 18

The fire could eventually eclipse the 2007 Ham Lake Fire, which burned 75,000 acres

Since then, the fire has spread beyond the borders of the BWCAW and is in an area between Ely and Isabella, said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center

"We still don't have solid boundaries," she said, explaining that officials haven't been able to see through the huge smoke plume

The Pagami Creek Fire was burning over 11,000 acres on Monday, but 40 mph winds fanned the blaze and sent it racing 16 miles east in one day, said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center

"Nobody would have guessed it be doubling and quadrupling in size," Bergerson said, predicting that it would take several days or weeks to get the fire under control

No structures have burned and no one has been hurt, Bergerson said, but with 25 mph winds forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday she said it would probably spread further

About 36 residences on the eastern edge of the fire were evacuated Monday night and officials cleared more than 100 campers from the fire's path, some by Forest Service float planes

The residents of the small town of Isabella were told Monday night to keep their medicine, valuables and pets close by so they could also leave on short notice, she said

Tom Person, co-owner of the Stony River Cafe in Isabella, said he had been there 29 years and this was the closest a forest fire had gotten to town He said it looked like a huge white thunderhead rising out of the woods about 10 miles from town

"It's quite a sight," Person said "You can see it and smell it when the winds are right"

The cafe was open Tuesday, but Person said he was prepared to go if the winds changed and sent the fire roaring back toward town "That's just common sense," Person said

About 200 firefighters were assigned to the fire on Tuesday and more were pouring into the area Bergerson said the first of a group of about 50 elite firefighters were coming in from the Rocky Mountains and would probably take over on Thursday

Meanwhile, the Northland Chapter of the American Red Cross announced it was moving cots, blankets and food to the Community Center in Finland to accommodate evacuees

With the winds calming somewhat, grounds crews were patrolling the north side of the fire on Tuesday Bergerson the stronger winds on Monday prevented attacking the fire on foot and made canoe travel difficult; the downdrafts from the fire were creating more than 3-foot waves the lakes as it passed

While the Pagami Creek Fire has grown quickly, it remains far smaller than the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which burned 118 square miles in Minnesota and Canada and destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million It was the most destructive fire in the state since 1918

Sections of the BWCA remain open, but Bergerson recommended that campers call ahead as many entry points and lakes have been closed due to the fire

About 150 firefighters worked on the blaze on Monday, and Bergerson said crews from all over the Upper Midwest have come in to assist Dozens of firefighters were on the scene Tuesday morning, and at least five 20-person crews were being called in to assist, she said

Authorities Monday night evacuated residents on County Road 7 just north of Isabella Bergerson said officials were trying to stay at least one day ahead of what they expected the fire might do so that canoeists and others would have enough time to make it to safety

Besides the wind, Bergerson said low humidity and no rain was also hampering efforts to contain the fire
"We're not expecting any favorable weather conditions for at least the next 24 hours," she said

Smoke from the blaze has now been reported in Duluth and Grand Marais on Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline, and as far away as Traverse City, Mich

The fire has closed Lake One, one of the most accessible and popular entry points to the BWCAW

Frank Udovich, who owns the Kawishiwi Resort on Lake One, praised the firefighters' efforts

"They had a very ambitious waterbombing campaign over the last couple of days that ultimately has probably saved most of the Fernberg Trail and my resort," he said

Udovich said he provided about two dozen of his 200 canoes to firefighters

Related maps, reports, photos are available at InciWeb
By Elizabeth Dunbar, MPR News
MPR News can be heard on 911 FM in the Twin Cities or online at MPRnewsorg

(Copyright 2011 by KARE All Rights Reserved)

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