Ely is typically teeming this time of year with visitors heading out on or returning from excursions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But about the only cars in the northeastern Minnesota town with canoes strapped to their tops this week are leaving.
Several fires inside and just outside the country's most visited wilderness area led officials to close it last weekend, dealing a blow to those who spent months planning their trips there and to the outfitters and other businesses that depend on them.
“Usually, this time of the morning, we’re bustling — getting people on the water, loading canoes, getting them out to their entry points,” Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Company, told Minnesota Public Radio. “And as you can see looking around, it’s empty.”
Several lightning-caused fires have burned in the wilderness amid 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. Superior National 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.
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But when the so-called John Ek fire took off late last week, forest officials decided to close the entire wilderness area as a precaution for at least a week. They said that fire and the Greenwood Lake fire had stretched their resources too thin to ensure the safety of paddlers and campers.
Pushed by high winds, the Greenwood Lake blaze doubled in size Monday and overnight to 30 square miles (79 square kilometers) as of Tuesday morning, while the John Ek fire nearly doubled in size, to 2.3 square miles (6 square kilometers). 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.
U.S. Forest Service officials say the fire on Monday afternoon developed a pyrocumulus cloud, resulting in extreme fire behavior and fire-created lightning. The cloud was visible for miles in all directions and smoke and ash from the fire were reported as far away as Lutsen, a resort town on Lake Superior.
Pat Prochaska watched the fire through his security cameras Monday as it advanced on his cabin on South McDougal Lake. He said Tuesday that he thinks it survived, but that he won't know for sure until he can get back there for a look.
“We're just going on the fact that the cameras on the four corners of the house continued to operate as the fire passed,” Prochaska said. “We know there's a lot of siding that melted and maybe some holes in the roof, but we think the main structure is fine.”
The video shows a line of fire advancing through the trees amid winds thick with smoke and flames quickly climbing the trunks. But the trees were already cut back 30 feet from the cabin to provide a safety buffer. Prochaska said he knows the view won't be the same, but he's taking a long view.
“It's going to be a little different, but it'll be a rebirth. I know that to be true,” he said.
In Ely, outfitter Zabokrtsky said his customers have been understanding, but it’s too late in the season to easily reschedule them. Some have rebooked trips for next year. But he said he’s had dozens of cancellations and has had to refund tens of thousands of dollars.
“To have sort of this immediate closure and have to tell somebody who’s traveled from Texas or California, and are standing in front of us ready to go out for a week in the woods, that actually everything’s changed and your Boundary Waters vacation is off, is really difficult,” Zabokrtsky told MPR.
The BWCA makes up slightly more than a third of the 4,687 square mile (12,140 square kilometer) Superior National Forest, and most of the forest remains open.
Despite the closure of the wilderness area, a few visitors haven't been dissuaded. Mary Claire Ryan drove up from Brainerd, with her two grandsons and a canoe strapped to the roof of her truck.
“Since our tradition is to come up and stay the night in Ely and get an early start, we still have a motel room,” Ryan told MPR. “And we figured, well, we can go to lakes outside of the Boundary Waters and do some fishing. And if it’s really bad, go home. But we’d rather come up and keep our tradition going than stay home.”
Drought conditions have also fueled wildfires in parts of the Western U.S. In California,more than 13,500 firefighters were still working Tuesday to contain a dozen large wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to flee. Nearly 43,000 Californians were under under evacuation orders and more than 500 households were in shelters.
About 20 miles (32 kilometers) offshore from Minnesota, a wildfire on Michigan’s remote Isle Royale in Lake Superior led the National Park Service to close some of its trails and campgrounds.