ELY, Minn. (AP) — A forest fire that broke out Thursday afternoon threatened the northeastern Minnesota town of Ely, and officials ordered the evacuation of the southeast corner of the community.
The blaze apparently started when a vehicle drove over a downed power line, the Duluth News Tribune (http://bit.ly/JW2bxp) reported. Flames could be seen from the city and smoke was enveloping the town just before 3 p.m.
Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, said the blaze started about 1:45 p.m. along Minnesota Highway 1 about a mile south of Ely on U.S. Forest Service land. Fire-engine crews, helicopters and two water-bombing airplanes were trying to douse the fire, which had expanded to an estimated 20 acres in less than an hour, she said.
"They're hitting as hard as they can. There are some evacuations south of town. They are calling in 'dozers and more engines," Goad said. "It's very windy out there."
Mayor Roger Skraba ordered a small portion of the town south of White Street and east of 12th Avenue East to evacuate. Power was out to part of town, including the local radio station, WELY.
Conditions in the area have been very dry. Winds in the area 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 the winds had blown the fire to within a quarter mile of the town by mid-afternoon. He said fire 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."
Emergency crews were in Ely in case evacuations were needed, said Sgt. Jon Skelton of the St. Louis County sheriff's office. He said a command center was being set up on Highway 1.
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!"
Grant Kleven told the News Tribune 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."
Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.