ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL – The Cavity Lake fire kept up its slow but steady march across more than 22,000 acres — 34 square miles — of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Thursday. After nearly a week of burning, the fire has grown so complex that an elite incident management team was called in to coordinate the fire attack.
A Type 1 incident management team, one of only 17 in the country, took over management of the wildfire this morning.
Helicopters and one CL-215 water tanker continued dumping water on portions of the fire, while crews began laying sprinkler hoses along the northern edge of the fire to keep embers from leaping and igniting new fires north of Alpine Lake.
A brisk fire began burning on a peninsula south of Gabimichigan Lake, along the southern edge of the fire on Thursday night.
The southeast edge of the fire also crept to within about a half mile of one of the trigger points near the Gunflint Trail. Trigger points are lines on a map the management team uses to determine residents of warnings. If the fire reaches or crosses the trigger point, Cook County will begin looking closely at possible evacuations, said Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk. However, during the 2005 Alpine Lake fire, flames crossed the trigger line but officials determined an evacuation wasn’t necessary, Falk said.
The management change is not a reflection on the previous team’s work, said Dennis Nietzke, Gunflint District ranger for the Superior National Forest. Rather, the Type 1 team has more experience in coordinating the complex web of tasks and agencies that the Cavity Lake fire has demanded.
The fire has bumped up to a Level 4 on the Department of Homeland Security list of national incidents, said U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer Joe Field. There is only one higher level.
“We’re getting serious, here,” Field said.
The Type 1 team, called the Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 2, is based in Washington and Oregon and responds to three to five of the nation’s worst disasters each year, said Robert Gear, deputy incident commander.
Those have included the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Hurricanes Rita and Ivan, and the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery operation, Gear said. They are typically on a fire scene for two to three weeks.
The last wildfire the team responded to was the November 2004 Cedar Fire in San Diego County in California, a massive wildfire in which thousands of homes burned.
While the Cavity Lake fire isn’t as dramatic, and hasn’t seriously threatened any buildings or people, the logistical challenges of fighting the fire are enormous, Gear said.
Unlike fires in the arid Southwest, where roads exist or can be built so firefighters can reach the scene, it would take hours or days to hack a trail through the BWCAW blowdown. It’s a two-day canoe trip through the wilderness to reach some areas — fine if you’re out for a scenic paddle, but harder if crews have to hump in hundreds of pounds of gear.
There are several “spike” (temporar)y camps set up around the fire, so ground crews need not waste time traveling to and from the site. But supplying those spike camps with food and equipment presents a whole new set of challenges, Gear said.
“It takes a lot to keep these people going,” Gear said. “And if the people aren’t getting what they need, your whole operation will end.”
Communication between air and ground crews and command staff has been a constant challenge on the mostly cellular tower-free Gunflint Trail. Communications crews had to set up several signal repeaters around the fire to boost radio signal strengths.
Piles of equipment began stacking up at the Seagull Lake command post, as crews stockpiled pallets of rolled hoses, rows of water pumps and a small mountain of bottled water to be used in the coming weeks.
The fire continued to burn back against the wind, as it has steadily since it began on July 14 by a lightning strike.
“It’s still chunking away up there,” said Doug Miedtke, a fire behavior analyst with the Forest Service. The fireline has been creeping a quarter mile to a half mile per day into the wind as flames lick and ignite dried blowdown fuels.
The fire is expected to burn moderately again today, officials said. Lead meteorologist Byron Paulson said there is little chance for significant rain until the middle of next week.
There were 274 people working with the fire by Thursday afternoon, Field said, with at least two more crews of 20 on their way. Costs of fighting the fire have risen to about $850,000. No part of the fire is yet contained.
Forest Service public safety crews escorted two more camping parties out of Ogishkemuncie Lake on Thursday afternoon, said Tom Kaffine, Forest Service public safety coordinator. The parties, one of six canoeists, the other of four, had been waiting for the fire to burn out for several days. Forest Service crews provided the escorts across portages and out through Seagull Lake to help the campers avoid any hazards left standing in the forest.
Fire officials estimated Thursday that another fire, at Turtle Lake, is 2.3 square miles. That figure is slightly higher than Wednesday’s, but only because the fire officials made a more accurate estimate of the fire’s size.
Fire information officers Joe Fields forecast more smoke than spread for that fire, as higher humidity and only light wind are expected to keep it from spreading quickly.