ELY (AP) — A forest fire burned close to the popular tourist town of Ely on Thursday, prompting officials to evacuate a corner of the northeastern Minnesota community before firefighters began gaining on the blaze.
Flames could be seen and smoke loomed over the town of about 3,500 residents on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Fire officials haven’t said how the blaze started, though a witness told the Duluth News Tribune he saw a fire ignite when a vehicle drove over a downed power line on Highway 1.
The fire started around 1:45 p.m. along the highway about a mile south of Ely on U.S. Forest Service land, Minnesota Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jean Goad said. Within less than three hours, the fire had spread across about 90 acres and come within a quarter mile of some structures, she said.
Firefighters were using four water-scooping planes and two water-dropping helicopters, along with 10 fire engines and four bulldozers, she said. More ground equipment was on the way.
“They’re hitting as hard as they can,” Goad said.
City Clerk Terry Lowell said officials were confident they were gaining control by late afternoon. He said the fire came as close as a few hundred yards from city limits and was close to Ely’s electrical substation. Power was out to part of town, including the local radio station, WELY, and transmitters for Minnesota Public Radio.
City officials asked residents in a few square blocks in the southeast part of town to evacuate. Lowell said about 230 people lived in the voluntary evacuation area but didn’t know how many had left. Ely’s community center was opened for anyone needing shelter, but Lowell said no one was there, and the order later ended.
Grant Kleven told the Duluth News Tribune that he was driving his linen-service delivery truck on Highway 1 when he saw another vehicle hit the downed power line.
“The line sort of bounced up and sparked, and the sparks started a fire in the ditch. It hit a pine tree and it just went up instantly. ... I had to back my truck out of there to avoid the flames,” he said. “I’m sitting in Ely now and there’s ash falling on me. The smoke just keeps coming over the city.”
Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of the Ely Outfitting Company on the city’s main street, watched as the big water-scooping planes attacked the blaze from the air.
“They’re circling directly above downtown,” Zabokrtsky said. “Wow. Right over the treetops. Holy moley!”
Weather conditions in the area have been very dry. Afternoon winds were blowing from the south at 22 mph, gusting to 35 mph, with a temperature of 72 and relative humidity of 27 percent, according to the National Weather Service.
St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said engine crews from Ely, Babbitt, the U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and numerous township volunteer fire departments were making a fire line on the southeast side of Ely.
“I’m standing here watching the fire blow right toward my house. We’re concerned. ... But they are setting up a pretty good fire line on the edge of town. I think they can hold it if it comes this far,” Forsman said. “There’s a lot of ash falling.”