New evacuation orders went into place Monday as crews braced for the Greenwood Fire burning in the Superior National Forest to cross State Highway 1 and move toward McDougal Lake.
The fire's move to the northeast near McDougal Lake forced "fire and structure protection crews to retreat to areas of safety," the National Forest said in a 3 p.m. Facebook post.
The fire was expected to cross Highway 1 near the intersection with Lake County Highway 2, the National Forest said.
The Lake County Emergency Office issued additional evacuation orders from Deep Lake Road and East to Little Isabella Road, including areas near Mitiwan, Grouse and Kitigan lakes.
The Red Cross has established a new evacuation center at the Babbitt Municipal Center at 71 South Drive in Babbitt, the Forest Service said. The former site in Finland closed as of 5 p.m. Monday.
Earlier in the day, the fire remained at 8,862 acres, or 13.85 square miles, but crews anticipated "near-critical fire weather (Monday) with warmer temperatures and gusty winds," agencies battling the blaze said in a joint news release.
While crews Sunday credited light winds and cool temperatures for slowed growth of the fire, the afternoon brought increased fire activity thanks to warmer temperatures, lower humidity and gusting winds.
At a public meeting at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland on Monday evening, Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team Commander Brian Pisarek said it was "one of the toughest days" the crews expected to have this week due to the fire conditions. The fire pushed forward on its eastern side toward the McDougal and Slate lakes. starting around 12 p.m. and it grew into a large smoke plume fire by 2 p.m., which Pisarek said surprised the crews. They had to pull out from the areas where they were working and shift to other areas around the fire.
"We usually get that a bit later in the day," he said. "But a fire starts to heat itself up as it advances and it builds up steam. We've been doing everything we can to slow the spread."
The advancement of the fire towards McDougal Lake prompted 159 evacuations by the Lake County Sheriff's Office on Monday, according to Sheriff Carey Johnson, bringing the total number of evacuations to approximately 290.
Due to the plumes, Pisarek said they did not have an accurate picture of how much the fire advanced on Monday. They need the smoke to clear for planes to fly overhead and get a better read. He also said he was unsure if structures were impacted by Monday's fire run.
Crews on Monday worked to "emphasize reinforcing" the fire's southern line, the Highway 2 corridor and near McDougal and Slate lakes. Additional equipment and personnel were called in, the release said. That includes contract loggers to help create fuel breaks.
“We’re glad to be able to contract with local companies who can apply their knowledge of this area to help in our efforts on the Greenwood Fire," Aaron Kania, Kawishiwi district ranger, said in a Facebook post Monday morning. "We know they are committed to this place and the long-term availability of timber resources in Northeast Minnesota.”
Smoke from the Greenwood Fire and several fires burning in Canada's Quetico Provincial Park prompted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to issue an air quality alert until 3 p.m. Wednesday for Lake, Cook and central St. Louis counties.
"Changing winds are expected through Wednesday near these fires. … Smoke may briefly impact the Duluth area, but is expected to largely remain confined north of the Duluth Metropolitan area. Fine particle levels are expected to reach the Orange (air quality index) category, a level that is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, for the affected downwind areas," the MPCA said in a news release.
On the bright side, Pisarek said they do not expect to see as much fire activity on Tuesday due to an expected increase in humidity and decrease in wind. The crews plan to redeploy forces and assess structures for damage from today's fire run.
Evacuation orders are in effect for McDougal Lake, Sand Lake, the Highway 2 corridor and north of State Highway 1 in the vicinity of East and West Chub lakes, Jackpot Lake and Slate Lake.
Highway 2 is closed from Forest Highway 11 to Highway 1. Highway 1 is closed from New Tomahawk Road to Lankinen Road.
A Forest Service closure order is in place that extends across the Kawishiwi, Laurentian and Tofte ranger districts and a small portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For more information, go to fs.usda.gov/superior.
A temporary flight restriction for aircraft is in place over the fire area.
John Ek and Whelp fires
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service issued a preevacuation notice due to another fire in the Superior National Forest.
The John Ek Fire had remained at 800 acres, or 1.25 square miles acres, on Monday morning, but at the Wolf Ridge public meeting, Connie Cummins of the U.S. Forest Service said the size had grown to 3,000 acres. The fire is about 2.5 miles south of Little Saganaga Lake from John Ek Lake to the southeast corner of Elton Lake. Due to the increase in size, the Forest Service is considering evacuations on the Gunflint Trail.
A preevacuation notice was sent to residents from the Seagull end to the South end of Loon Lake on the Gunflint Trail. There was no evacuation in place as of Monday evening, but residents were notified to be ready in case one comes. In case of an evacuation order, residents are encouraged to turn on a sprinkler system if they have one, pack up important items such as medications and pets and gather valuables. If residents choose to pre-evacuate, they are asked to stop in at the YMCA in Grand Marais to check in with law enforcement so they have an accurate count of residents in the area.
The lightning-caused Whelp Fire is 5 miles northwest of Sawbill Lake "and continues to creep and smolder in the deep duff without moving outside of its current footprint of an estimated 50 acres," the Forest Service said.
The entire BWCAW is closed due to the threat of fire. The closure began Saturday and will last at least one week. The Forest Service continues to sweep the area to notify visitors that they must leave.
"The Forest will reopen portions of the Wilderness and some uses when it is safe," the Forest Service said.