ELY, Minn. (AP) — The forest fire that has burned more than 147 square miles in northeastern Minnesota has given a not entirely welcome boost to the economy in the Ely area.
The roughly 600 firefighters fighting the Pagami Creek wildfire in and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have meant new business for restaurants and outfitters that have provided meals and canoes for crews heading out to battle remote sections of the fire, Minnesota Public Radio reported Monday (http://bit.ly/qeOsRU ). Retailers are selling them clothing and cold weather gear. Aircraft fuel sales at the local airport are up because of the helicopters and airplanes fighting the fire.
But merchants such as Voyageur North Outfitters owner John O'Kane are worried. He's seeing a drop-off in customers bound for camping trips this fall, mostly because of the campfire ban in the still-open parts of the wilderness. And he's even more concerned about future business. The fire burned an untold number of campsites in the Boundary Waters, and he fears those sites may not be safe to use again for many years.
"I'd like to go in there and see how it looks, but they're not going to let people in probably until next spring. My worry is next year, when there are less permits available and less people coming up because these areas are closed down," he said. "We're going to see long-term effects for the next 10 years, I'm sure."
Voyageur North customer Shawn Roberts, of Brainerd, and his friends had a permit for the popular Lake One area east of Ely, but it was cancelled because of the fire. Instead, they'll use an open entry point to the west.
"We don't care if we have a fire or not, and now we get to go to a place that I wanted to go last time we were here," he said.
Ely district ranger Mark Van Every says he doesn't think the destruction will stop people from visiting the area. He said the opportunity to watch the forest rejuvenate itself may even attract some visitors.
"As we've seen in other areas, whether it's Yellowstone in 1988 or the Ham Lake fire and the Cavity Lake fire on the Gunflint corridor, things will be different. They won't look the same as they did in the past, but they will recover, and they'll recover relatively quickly," Van Every said.
Still, the specter of potential visitors planning trips elsewhere worries Ely area merchants even as they welcome the short-term economic gain from the firefighters.
Matthew Roderick, owner of the Chocolate Moose restaurant, said all the extra people have made the town a busy place.
In a town that depends on tourists, he said, "Vacancy signs haven't been seen since the fire started."
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.