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Ham Lake fire intensifies, weather not helping

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Ham Lake fire intensifies, weather not helping
Farmington Minnesota P.O. Box 192 / 312 Oak St. 55024

ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL - The Ham Lake fire spotted Thursday night across Gunflint Lake to the lake's south side, home to dozens of cabins, homes and the historic Gunflint Lodge.

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Officials weren't able to say exactly where the fire was burning because conditions changed minute by minute.

The fire's size had grown to 30,000 acres, or 46 square miles, and was active on both sides of the border.

The worst scenario happened earlier Thursday when flames from the fire jumped a safety line and toward the Gunflint Lake area, forcing mandatory evacuations.

By Thursday night, that evacuation had been extended to north and west of the Poplar Lake Fire Hall, according to Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk. The sheriff's department maintained a cautionary roadblock at Trail Center Lodge. About the last third of the Gunflint Trail was closed to all outside traffic.

Northwest winds gusting to 25 mph, along with hot sun and temperatures around 80 degrees, pushed the fire toward developed areas of the Gunflint Trail. The heavily developed South Gunflint Lake Road and Loon Lake Road areas were evacuated just before 2 p.m.

It appears flames from the intentionally lit fire Wednesday night may have unexpectedly rekindled and moved back across fire lines.

Fire experts had hoped the intentional fires lit just northwest of Gunflint Lake would burn out fuel, slowing the wildfire as the northwest winds hit Thursday. But the intentional fire continued to burn all night and may have sent flames in the unexpected direction Thursday.

The National Weather Service says the Gunflint Trail area should see highs in the 50s and northeast winds. A red flag warning was in effect through Thursday night, a signal to the public and fire experts that dry, windy conditions could quickly push small fires into problem blazes. The best chance of rain isn't forecast until Sunday.

"We're back to the conditions we had in the first two days of the fire," Daria Day, an interagency fire center information officer, said Thursday.

A ban on all outdoor fires is in effect across St. Louis, Lake and Cook Counties, and a similar ban is in effect across Wisconsin's northern tier of counties.

Almost 600 firefighters from across the country were on the scene Thursday, with more expected. They are being supported by several helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Ardis David, 81, was eating at the Gunflint Lodge when the winds brought the fire within sight and the smoke rolled in overhead. "I've never seen a sky quite like that," she said after she had evacuated. "Flames were coming off the ridge."

Gloria Johnson, 59, watched the sky darken while she was working at the Trail Center Lodge and Black Bear Bar and Restaurant, about midway down the Gunflint Trail. She and her colleagues took several nervous glances out the window.

"It's scary -- not just for myself, but this is Cook County's livelihood," she said. "We depend on the tourists in the summer."

After looking at the ominous sky, Johnson said she was going to prepare to evacuate even though her house was still miles away.

"We're nervous," she said, then began crying. "I'm emotional because I just lost my husband and so the thought of losing my house too is just too much."

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