Crews fighting the Delta Lake blaze in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have finally hacked through waist- and chest-high piles of old blown-down trees to actually reach the fire and are starting a containment boundary around it.
The 65-acre fire is the largest of four burning or smoldering across the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest as soaring temperatures and persistent drought across Minnesota's crispy landscape fuel outbreaks. A fifth fire broke out Tuesday near Bemidji.
It's far from the conflagrations in the western United States. Still, Minnesota has tallied 1,634 wildfires since March that have burned 35,000 acres, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
"We're way above our average," said Linda Gormanson, DNR burning permit coordinator. "All of the northwest side of the state is listed as very high fire danger right now."
Typically at this time of year Minnesota is sending firefighting resources to other states. The reverse is happening this year, with crews from more than 20 states helping out in Minnesota, said DNR forestry spokesman Anthony Hauck.
Bans on campfires continue to spread. The Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park and Superior National Forest have all temporarily banned them, although camping stoves are still permitted.
The DNR has expanded its burn restrictions covering much of northern Minnesota. That means no campfires are allowed for dispersed campers at 40 state forests, and no backcountry campfires are allowed in 26 state parks and recreation areas. Camping stoves are allowed. The DNR is also not issuing new permits for burning such things as brush piles.
If conditions don't improve, bans on other activities such as welding could become necessary, Gormanson said.
"It is a hardship for people in the state and we understand that," she said. "We have growing vegetation and we don't have rain coming in good intervals."
Northern Minnesota did not get the rainfall the Twin Cities welcomed Wednesday.
About 150 people are working the four fires in the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest, said Cecile Stelter, public information officer for the eastern area incident management team, working with the National Interagency Fire Center out of Boise, Idaho.
They are mainly focused on the Delta Lake fire, the largest. About 20 miles east of Ely, the fire has grown slightly in recent days to 65 acres and was about 5% contained Wednesday. Stelter said it was caused by a lightning strike.
Helicopters and airplanes have been dropping water, and it will take crews several days to finish a containment line that is at least 3 feet wide, Stelter said. It's been slow going, she said, because crews must cut through dead trees from past high winds.
"It is dried horizontal fuel that occurred because of a blowdown," Stelter said.
Crews are monitoring the other three fires — two within the Boundary Waters and one in Superior National Forest — which are deemed controlled but continue to smolder and smoke. Two are presumed to have been caused by lightning, she said, but the cause of the other isn't clear.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued an air-quality alert for northern Minnesota due to wildfire smoke through Friday morning.
Near Bemidji, more than 30 people are working to contain a blaze that broke out Tuesday afternoon and led to a temporary voluntary evacuation.
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel said the cause of the fire is suspicious and remains under investigation.
The 65-acre fire started in Eckles Township in a ditch along Radar Road, and was about 5% contained Wednesday afternoon, said Sarah Shapiro, public information officer for the Minnesota Incident Command System, an interagency group out of Grand Rapids.
The Radar fire is on a mix of private and county land with a variety of pine trees and grass.
Shapiro said resources are "spread kind of thin" because of other fires.
Beitel praised the fast teamwork by the DNR and the Bemidji and Solway fire departments.
"Without that I feel in my heart that we would have lost homes and potentially lost lives," Beitel said. "There's still a lot of smoke in the air from this fire. It's still smoldering out there good."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683