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Raging fire chars dozens of buildings

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ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- The Ham Lake fire blazed an ugly path of destruction Sunday night into Monday morning, burning an estimated 40 homes, cabins and outbuildings and becoming Minnesota's most damaging wildfire in decades.

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The fire, apparently sparked by an unattended campfire early Saturday, had burned across more than 16,500 acres by Monday evening and was spreading into Canada.

The fire turned parts of this dead-end, wilderness-road community into a charred disaster area. Local officials said damage will be in the millions of dollars as some of the region's most spectacular lake homes went up in flames.

The front of the fire had mostly moved away from the Gunflint Trail and developed areas by late Monday and into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario.

Less than a tenth of an inch of rain fell on the fire Monday morning. The weather was sunny, hot and windy by mid-afternoon with no major rain in the forecast for several days.

Firefighters hoped a forecast of light winds today will help calm the fire that is still officially out of control and only about 5 percent contained. The fire's perimeter is 27 miles, and a major change in wind could threaten other buildings in the area.

Residents had not been allowed back to homes, cabins and businesses as of Monday evening because of small fires, including many in trees.

"It's just not safe to go in there. As soon as it is, we'll let people go back," said Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest.

Of the 91 major buildings in the area inventoried by the Cook County Sheriff's Department, at least 40 sustained fire damage.

"There are some houses up there where all there is left is the foundation," said Leif Lunde of the Cook County Sheriff's Department. Lunde said about 30 burned buildings were homes or cabins; the rest were outbuildings, such as garages and sheds.

An aerial tour Monday showed piles of smoldering ash where houses once stood, next to cabins that apparently escaped unscathed. Sheriff's deputies continued going house-to-house to assess damage and gather information to provide to residents via a telephone hot line.

An evacuation of the last seven miles of the trail was ordered by Sheriff Mark Falk on Sunday morning. No one was hurt in the fire.

"We've been getting ready for this for nearly seven years now. We were as ready as we could have been, but we just couldn't stop that fire last night," Falk said Monday. "I'm not a fire expert, but it made me sick what it was doing. There was no stopping it. At least we can say we got everyone out of there ... But what do you say to someone whose home just burned to the ground?"

The fire was pushed by strong winds that first carried the flames west, then turned it north. The region remains tinder-dry, nearly a year into a severe drought. Humidity was as low as 15 percent Sunday, fire experts said.

Dousing buildings with irrigation-like sprinklers and the efforts of neighbors, volunteer firefighters and state and federal wildland firefighters saved two-thirds of the buildings.

"Basically, the buildings with sprinklers are still there. Those that didn't have them are gone," said Don Kufahl, a lieutenant with the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department.

Several homeowners and businesses had installed the sprinklers, hooked to pumps that pull water from the lakes, after the 1999 windstorm that downed millions of trees in the BWCAW. The Gunflint Fire Department also purchased portable sprinklers.

This is the third major fire in the area in the past three years, but the first to destroy buildings.

Kufahl was on the scene at Tuscarora Lodge near Ham Lake on Saturday, when crews with portable sprinklers and pumps saved the lodge and cabins and lost only one shed to the fire.

On Sunday, Kufahl's fire engine was called about 10 miles up the trail to near his own home at Voyageur Outfitters as the fire turned north. By Sunday night, hot embers from the blaze were falling up to a mile ahead of the fire.

"The fire just kept growing and growing into the night. That usually doesn't happen up here. The sky was just orange," he said.

As cabins and homes began to burn, propane tanks -- including some used to power water pumps for sprinklers -- began to explode.

"We were deciding which places we could save and which we couldn't," Kufahl said. That's a terrible thing when you have to make a decision to let your neighbor's house burn down. But they know it just wasn't worth losing a life to save a building. We had to get our guys out of there," Kufahl said.

Kufahl left the area before midnight not knowing whether his house had burned.

"I couldn't sleep in my own bed ... I didn't even know if I still had one. But I do. It's still there," Kufahl said.

Dave Williams wasn't so lucky. His business, Seagull Outpost, burned down. He wasn't sure if anything was spared.

"It was a rustic, two-story lodging facility. It wasn't fancy. We were just about to open for the fishing opener this weekend," Williams said. "I just hope all the trees aren't gone. It's 46 acres with beautiful jack pine."

At Seagull Outfitters, fire crews worked into the night. The fire moved within a few feet of the bunkhouse, but crews saved all the buildings. Foam retardant saved most of Seagull Creek Fishing Camp.

Mike Aultman, assistant fire commander and a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fire expert, said the fire doubled quickly to 4,000 acres Saturday, to 8,000 acres Sunday and doubled again on Monday.

When firefighting aircraft had to leave at sunset, the fire moved mostly unchecked.

"It's some of the worst fire behavior that I've seen in 27 years doing this, including in Alaska" Aultman told a public meeting in Grand Marais.

Seven water-dropping aircraft continued constant sorties on the fire Monday, joined by 27 fire engine crews on the ground and, by day's end, at least 60 wildland firefighters on the ground. More firefighters were expected to arrive today, along with a national fire command team. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to tour the area today.

The U.S. Forest Service has imposed its most restrictive fire ban in years for the Superior National Forest, snuffing all campfires and charcoal fires until ample rain falls. Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties have joined the ban. Only gas-fired cookstoves will be allowed as thousands of anglers head into the Northland for this weekend's fishing opener.

Forest Service officials were criticized by some residents for not imposing the fire ban earlier. But Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District Ranger for the Superior National Forest, said few people had been camping in the area. Ice had melted from some area lakes only a week before.

"In 20-20 hindsight, it would have been nice" to have started the fire ban before last weekend, Van Every said. Fire investigators will try to determine who started the fire, and that person could be prosecuted and held liable for some costs if there was negligence.

The fire burned through thousands of acres that had burned since the 1999 windstorm. But just a year or two of new growth provided enough fuel for this fire. The east side of Seagull Lake was among the only areas still unburned -- until Sunday night.

"There was one small doorway, and the fire used it," Van Every said.

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