Ham Lake Fire May 21st Part 2

Voyageur after the fire

Some of you have asked how Voyageur is after the Ham Lake Fire.  A wildfire is an amazing force with a mind of its own.  It is unpredictable and relies on many variables to determine how and where it will burn.  Many times a structure will survive the initial flashover only to burn much later due to sometimes preventable circumstances.

Fire Wise is a program that was implemented on the Gunflint Trail after the blowdown in 1999.  Their mission is to identify areas of risk to wildfires and to develop strategies to reduce that risk.  Assessments were made on properties, a grant for sprinkler systems was available and information was distributed in order to help protect homes in case of a wildfire on the Gunflint Trail.  Many existing homeowners and cabin owners took advantage of one or all of these opportunities and made their property Fire Wise.

Some people did as much as they could to make sure their property would survive a wildfire.  They cleared trees on and around their structures, they kept their gutters and roofs free of debris, they stored their firewood away from their cabin, installed sprinkler systems and followed the FireWise protocol to a tee.  Other property owners wanted to keep the northwoods charm of their cabin in tact.  They left branches overhanging their roofs and driveways,  they didn’t prune their bushes and trees or close in their soffit or fascia, they used  wood siding,  left down dead wood near their structures and didn’t install a sprinkler system.  Some people did a little of this and a little of that and got lucky and others did not.

As a member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department we saw first hand how being FireWise helped protect structures.  If a sprinkler system was installed properly and was fully functional for an adequate duration of time then the structure most likely survived.  If a property had an open area under their cabin where sparks or the fire could crawl then it most likely burned down.  Some people did everything right and their cabin still burned down others did everything wrong and got lucky.

On a plane ride the other day I was able to take a photo of our place to show you how the fire made it’s way around Voyageur.  The property across the river was luckily untouched.  On the lodge side of the Seagull River you can see how far the sprinklers reached.  Our neighbor to the South or on the right side of the photo had sprinklers running.   Our canoes and four employee cabins did not have sprinkler systems running on them.  The area around the cabins was not cleared, the cabins were open underneath and the soffit and faschia were not finished; all four of them burned.

As owners of Voyageur we did a few things right and were very lucky.  When the fire roared over our place we lost four employee cabins, Don and Marilyn’s storage shed and its contents, Theresa’s belongings and some other replaceable items.  No lives were lost and no one was severely injured.  We’re so sorry for those who lost their property and belongings and so very thankful to still have ours.

Posted in Gunflint Trail

Ham Fire May 21st, 2007

May 21 100% contained

The Ham Lake Fire was officially contained on the U.S. side at 6:00 PM on Saturday, May 19, 2007.  At that time overall containment of the fire was 65% but I’m sure it is more now.  There are still over 200 people managing the fire on the U.S. side and almost 300 on the Canadian side.  By the end of the week these numbers will be considerably less as crews are being demobilized daily.  Since the numbers have dropped the Base Camp Concessionaire who was providing meals for the fire personnell has left and now meals are being provided at Voyageur.  Don, Mike, Theresa, Ian and Sheri have been working non-stop getting things all set up at Voyageur for meals as well as our regular guests.

Marilyn is still at the Voyageur Outpost in Grand Marais answering telephone calls, getting mail, reserving permits and taking care of Voyageur paperwork.  She and Lanie are the two refugees left stranded in town.  We’re not sure when she will return to Voyageur since we don’t have mail service and without a phone line it will be difficult to function.  The land line may not be up for 4-6 weeks so we are unsure what we will do about faxes, credit card purchases,  fishing licenses, reservations, etc.

A good friend of ours, Chad Jones, has installed a “Yagi Antenna” on our roof so we can use one cell phone from our location.  A Verizon wireless tower was put up for communications during the fire and then moved to the end of the Trail.  This was suppose to enable us to use cell phones from our home/business but we only receive one bar, not good enough to hold conversations.  We’re hoping they will make some improvements so we can have better cell coverage without driving up to the tower to talk.

Yesterday was a difficult day for me.  I wanted to get things unpacked and put away but at the same time I was afraid to do so.  Even though the threat of fire and evacuation were highly unlikely I still  couldn’t help thinking, “What if?”  I haven’t collected all of my photo albums and treasures from the Gunflint Pines yet either, maybe today.  It’s such a resltess feeling and I hope it goes away soon.

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Ham Fire May 20, 2007

More good news

The USFS has decided to re-open the lakes at the end of the Gunflint Trail on May 22nd.  This is also the same day non-residents will be allowed past the roadblock at Gunflint Narrows Road.  Due to campsite rehabilitation the Larch Creek and Magnetic Lake entry points into the Granite River will be closed until further notice.

This is good news for everyone who loves to spend Memorial Weekend on the Gunflint Trail.  We are happy to have a confirmed date for the reopening of both the road block and the entry points into the Boundary Waters.  We are excited to get the season started and welcome back our paddling and resort guests.

I had the opportunity to go on a float plane ride the other day and was pleasantly suprised by what I saw.  Last year I flew over the September East Zone Complex fire area and couldn’t believe how much smoke and flames there still was after all of the fire crews went home.  I thought I would see something similar this year but much to my amazement I only saw two puffs of smoke.  They were both right next to each other in a completely burned area causing absolutely no threat to anything around them.

The view from the plane was similar to that of other forest fires where the landscape resembles a mosaic.  Some of the valleys are green, the hillsides light brown and other places are black.  It isn’t just all black scorched earth like one may imagine.  There are varying degrees of burn intensity depending upon how hot the fire was and how fast the fire went through the area.  It’s comforting to see it from the sky and know there is still so much green on the Gunflint Trail and the surrounding area.

We are so grateful and thankful to everyone who has offered us their love and support over the past couple of weeks. I know we will not remember to thank each and every one of you personally and we apologize.  The kind gestures, words of encouragement, acts of kindness and reassuring smiles on faces have made life much easier for us and we really appreciate it.  The support of our family, friends, guests, neighbors, community members, blog readers and everyone else has been incredible and we are lucky to have you all behind us.  Many of you have offered your help and we may just take you up on it now that we are home.  We thank you all from the bottom of our hearts and knowing we have all of you caring for us is the best news ever.

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Ham Fire May 19th, Part 2

May 19 Home

We haven’t been this happy since the 4th of May.  The Sheriff’s Department decided to let the residents of the end of the Gunflint Trail go home today.  Good thing too because we were prepared to cover our kids with blankets in the backseat and smuggle them through the roadblock so we could all sleep in our own beds again.  I’m just thankful we didn’t have to break the law to do it.  So now we are all together, at the end of the Trail, in our home.

We didn’t make the drive home together in one vehicle since Abby had spent last night in town.  Mike took Josh up and then later Abby and I drove up together.  Mike told me when they got home Josh said, “It isn’t as bad as I thought.”  Abby must have said the word, “WOW!” a hundred times during our ride home.

Abby was taking everything in as we drove the last 10 miles of the Gunflint Trail.  She first made a comment about something being ugly and I told her I would not allow her to say that or to be negative about the impact the fire had on our woods.  After that she switched to positive mode and I think it made us both feel better.  She pointed out the already inch high grass growing in the ditches, the marsh marigolds blooming and all of the other flowers starting to come up in the burn areas.  When she noticed empty spaces where cabins used to sit she said, “At least they can build a new place if they want.”  She commented on how much easier it would be to get up to a favorite high spot because of the lack of underbrush that had burned.  She marveled about being able to now see Onagon Lake from the Gunflint Trail.  Her words were words I have been saying over and over to myself and it was good to hear them from her mouth.

Once we were all at home together it didn’t take the kids long to get back into a routine.  “Mom, Josh is bugging me!”  “Yeah but Abby is being mean.”  Once again the parents are the referee in the game of life and thankfully we’re the home team playing on a home court.

Advantage Voyageur and things are looking up.

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Ham Fire May 19th, 2007 Part 1

Many of the residents of the Gunflint Trail that were evacuated are now back at home. They are busy getting settled back in and for the business owners it’s back to business as usual. After all, it is the Canadian fishing opener this weekend and Memorial Weekend next week. The weather is typical for this time of year; cold, misty and a thermometer reading of 37 degrees. As a cold rain that sometimes turns white falls to the ground the Ham Lake Fire seems like something from our imagination, but unfortunately it was all too real.

Two weeks ago today the Ham Lake Fire started from a campfire ring on
Ham Lake . It quickly threatened Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters and everyone was so pleased when all of their buildings except for an old shed were saved. No one could have imagined the horror it would create the next day and the many thereafter.

While the threat of the Ham Lake Fire is basically over the memory of it all is fresh in my mind. The 6th of May 2007 will not be one I will ever forget. The wall of flames devouring the trees as we hurriedly evacuated people and assembled sprinkler systems is not a picture that will be erased from my memory. The sound of trees crackling and burning, the roar of the fire, and the occasional propane tank exploding are sounds I can’t get out of my head. The fear and panic of the possibility of forgetting to evacuate someone or the chaotic attempt to locate all responders is heavy in my chest still today. Not knowing if my home and business will survive, if Don our Manager would be ok, if our friends on the GTVFD would be all right or if I would ever see Mike again is not something I want to worry about again.

The Ham Lake Fire is two weeks old today and it’s old news. The television crews are gone and the story is no longer front page news, if news at all. The Public Meetings are done, the meal service for evacuees is over and the Evacuation Center at the Community Center in town will close at 5 pm today. The adrenaline is gone and the excitement is over. Sharon Baker, Shari ’s mother-in-law, summed it up this morning when she asked, “When are you going to go home?”

Two weeks tomorrow is how many days we have been away from home. Two weeks is a long time under these conditions and we’re more than anxious to go home. Officials have been discussing Tuesday as the next big day… The day the roadblock may be lifted, the day the entry points at the end of the Gunflint Trail may be re-opened and maybe the day the Quetico Park will open as well, we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

The Ham Lake Fire has kept us on the edge of our seats. The Type I Team is turning the incident over to a Type II Team tomorrow. There has been very little fire activity the past couple of days so some crews are busy rolling up the over 90 miles of hose that has been laid. There are still almost 700 people working on the fire and the cost of the fire is around 8 million dollars. The Ham Lake Fire consumed 3.7 million dollars of value for the 138 buildings lost making it the 4th worst fire in the history of Minnesota . It is also the 4th fire we have experienced since moving to the Gunflint Trail; Sag Corridor in 1995, Alpine Lake in 2005, Cavity Lake and the East Zone Complex in 2006.

I’m hoping the Ham Lake Fire will be the only fire for 2007 for us folks on the Gunflint Trail and I wouldn’t mind if it was the last one I ever experience.

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Ham Fire May 18, 2007

BWCA openings

The expected containment date of the Ham Lake Fire is May 20th so it should come as no surprise the US Forest Service will open many of the Gunflint Trail Entry Points on this day as well.   The USFS expects to have all entry points re-opened by the 14tth of June or earlier.

If the entry point you have chosen is closed during your date of travel then we can reserve an alternate entry point for your trip.  We can even outfit your group and if there is still a road block we have a number of neighboring “competitors” who have offered to let us use their facility for our guests.  We hope to be able to accomodate all of our paddling groups with as little inconvenience as possible.  We are anxious to get the outfitting season started and we’d love to see everyone up here this summer.

We are not sure when Saganaga will be open.  It depends upon the fire activity.  Right now things are looking good on Sag and ground crews are making lots of progress.  If this continues then we’ll be back on Sag before we know it.  We are sorry for the uncertainty of an exact date but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know.

We really appreciate how understanding all of our guests have been.  We haven’t been able to take as many phone calls, return as many calls or get to our e-mail as quickly as we like and we are sorry.  We are thankful for your patience and your concern for our well-being.  We look forward to the upcoming season and seeing you on the Gunflint Trail.

Posted in BWCA

Ham Fire May 17, 2007

Lost a Day

I’m not sure how it happened, but I lost a day somewhere.  I didn’t sleep it away either.  I can’t even remember what I did yesterday, but somehow I forgot to put an entry into my blog.  Strange.  I know I went to town and spent time with the kids in school, but I can’t remember what else I did.  Oh well.  Here it is Thursday, I apologize for not writing until now.

Some people have been able to go home to their places on the Gunflint Trail.  We were not some of those people.  If you live beyond Gunflint Narrows Road like us, then you are still an evacuee.  Marilyn and our faithful employees are still in Grand Marais since we can’t go home yet.  It’s kind of strange that the meal service provided by the community for the evacuees will be ending tomorrow when we don’t even know when we will get to go home.  We’re hoping it is soon.

Living the life of a refugee doesn’t sit well with me or with Josh.  He’s 5 and he’s having a difficult time with not being able to go home.  He misses his toys, his books and he really wants to go fishing.  He and Abby have been staying in town with relatives and our staff but tonight he had enough.  He started to cry when Mike and I were going to head back up to the Gunflint Pines.  He told me he was afraid the fire burned our house, it broke my heart.  I can handle myself being upset but not my little boy.  I really want to be able to go home and have things return to somewhat of a normal life.

I know even when we return home it won’t be too normal.  Our Walleye Wranglers who have been fishing with us every year for the Canadian Opener will not be able to come this weekend.  We will miss seeing them at Voyageur and hearing about all of the fish they usually catch.

Our phone service provider says it may be 4-6 weeks before we have regular service at the end of the Gunflint Trail again.  We don’t know if our friends at Superior North are planning to rebuild or if they will just close their doors. Some of our other neighbors who have been so important in our lives are without cabins and won’t be living next to us anymore.  Things will not be the same.

It’s hard to imagine a raging fire barreling over our home and business.  It’s a miracle those wildfire sprinkler systems can create such a bubble around the property so that it doesn’t burn.  It’s amazing to see how just beyond the reach of the sprinkler the earth has been charred.  It’s strange how a person can lose track of a day.

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Ham Fire May 16th, 2007

During the Ham Lake Fire I somehow lost a day and this was the day that was lost. I had actually posted twice the day before and must have thought I had posted one each day!


Posted in News

Ham Lake Fire May 15th 2007

It’s hard to imagine a fire that started on Ham Lake traveled all of the way to Saganaga, but it did.  We know that because we have seen one of the many paths of destruction, the end of the Gunflint Trail.  We keep re-playing the events of that Sunday in our minds, hoping for a different outcome.  I keep thinking I will wake up from this nightmare only to be amazed at how life-like it was.  The alarm clock can go off any time now.

Last night I was visiting a cemetery searching for a grave stone of a friend of mine who died in High School.  I was having a difficult time reading the headstones when suddenly I saw something out of the corner of my eye.  Sure enough, the grass on the hillside of the cemetery had started on fire.  I looked for equipment to put it out and finally found a bucket and some water.  I threw the water at the fire only to have it ignite as if I had thrown gasoline on it.  The person I was with said, “That’s an oil fire, you can’t put it out with water, it will just make it spread.”  Then I began my frantic search for baking powder to put out the kitchen oil that was on fire at the cemetery, far away from any kitchen.  My alarm clock did go off then and I woke up.  I’m waiting for the second alarm to go off.

I took a boat ride out to Saganaga today to survey the scene.  As I had said before fire had burned in places on the east side of the channel going out to Saganaga.  It is spotty until the fire reached James Bay where it appeared to have burned hot.  Farther north on Camper’s Island the northern tip of the island was scorched as well as one of the 7 Sisters Islands on the way to Canada.  The shoreline was burned in places as we headed toward Sag Falls.  Some of the islands and campsites were burned as well as Conner’s Island.  We made our way back toward Red Pine Island that had suffered some burning too.  Unfortunately this is where we found the charred remains of our friend’s property.  What another tragedy.  So far Sagonto, Chippewa Inn and Irv’s place are all ok, with changing winds it may be a different story for properties on Saganaga, we will continue to say our prayers.

Today’s weather is favorable.  The winds are light, the humidity high and it has been drizzling all day long.  This is letting crews get in to really get some work done and we are very thankful to Mother Nature.  If all goes well today and tomorrow then people who own property at the end of the Trail will be allowed to re-enter the area for a brief visit to their property.  There will be a short safety meeting at 11:30 AM on Thursday the 17th of May and then one vehicle per property will be allowed to head up the Gunflint Trail to survey their dwellings.  All people will need to check in and out at Fire Hall #1 or the road block and they must be out by 4:00 PM.  I’m hoping maybe some of the Canadian homeowners coud get to their property too.  We shall see.

I can’t keep my eyes open any longer so I’m going to try to take a nap.  Hopefully when I wake up I will realize this has all been a bad dream.


Posted in wildfire

Ham Lake Fire May 14, 2007

  It looks like the people of Grand Marais are good dancers, better than the ones on the Gunflint Trail.  I checked the weather station at Seagull and it looks like we only received .08″ of rain last night while town appeared to get much more.  I just hope the lightening wasn’t as active in the parts of the forest that didn’t get rain. 

     Today will be another test day.  The temperatures cooled off over the night and the humidity is high with the winds currently out of the east.  While the early winds are from the east they are expected to shift to the west and then northwest throughout the day.  The forecast is also calling for more rain, lightening, thunderstorms and even hail.  We shall see how kind Mother Nature really is. 

     The area of concern for firefighters today will be the area around Loon, Birch and possibly Poplar depending upon what the wind does.  Firefighters have worked on hotspots in these areas; they have dug some firelines, turned sprinkler systems on and backburned to create a fireline.  We are  hoping for favorable weather to help in this effort. 

     I can’t thank everyone enough for their help throughout the fire.  So many people have offered so many things to help us out during this chaotic time.  The favors come in all sizes and are all so appreciated.  We thank our friends, family and people we probably don’t even know for the outpouring of community support.  

Grand Marais, Lutsen Tofte and even Silver Bay is here.  Whoever I am forgetting, thank you very much.  It’s nice to see familiar faces out on the fire lines.  

     The area of containment of the fire is growing.  I can’t remember the specifics at this time but I think it was around 20%?  This is due in large part to the fire activity that cleaned up and secured the entire north shore of Gunflint Lake .  There are also areas that have been contained near Round
Lake and Tuscarora.  This is good progress and we pray for more black lines(representing contained areas on the map) real soon. 

     We’re still not sure when we will be able to go home.  No power and no phones but hopefully soon.  We had our 3rd employee arrive for the season yesterday and we’re still not sure where they will be staying when we do return to Voyageur.  All four of the crew cabins and the belongings burned to the ground. 

     There hasn’t been any confirmed information about the Canadian side of Saganaga.  I know there are fire crews heading out by boat so I will attempt to find out some facts today.  I think our employee Ian will be heading out there with boat loads of firefighters so he should be able to get a good look at where the fire activity was. 

     It is still a shock to drive through the burned areas.  We drove up to Voyageur for a propane run yesterday and my heart ached.  The cabins that are missing, the trees that are scorched and the memories attached to all of my favorite places in the woods are heavy on my heart.  I do consider us all lucky and can’t believe we were able to get people evacuated without any deaths.  The roads to some of those cabins are a long ways back and I know a number of firefighters risked their lives numerous times on that scary Sunday.  Some of those firefighters feel guilty wishing and thinking they may or should have been able to do more.  My response to those people has been, “Sure, if you wanted to die you may have been able to save one more cabin.” 

     It’s a strange thing to feel so responsible for everything that has happened or that may happen.  I think firefighters forget they are not God and carry the guilt and responsibility of every loss on their shoulders.  It’s a heavy weight to carry that can easily drag you down.  Please consider this if you are tempted to question anyone’s actions during this fire. 

     I have heard the question, “How are you?”, so many times.  This isn’t an easy question to answer for any of us involved in this tragedy.  I think I can speak for most of us.  When we’re doing something to aggressively fight the fire then we’re all ok.  If we’re busy organizing crews, spraying water, or looking for smoke, then we’re ok.  But if you give us any time to let our minds think about it, then we’re not.  

     I came to town last night to spend Mother’s Day with my kids.  I was stopped at a roadblock for a prescribed burn and by the time I got to them they were in bed.  I didn’t feel like talking to Marilyn, Sheri, Ian or Theresa, I just felt like crawling in between my kids on an air mattress and going to bed.  So that is what I did. 

Today is a new day but I still don’t feel like talking to people who aren’t up working on the fire.  I don’t know why that is.  I feel the urgent need to be back on the Gunflint Trail doing whatever I can do to prepare for today.  I was anxious all night long, worried about what was going on up there.  I have been wanting to wake my kids up to start the day early so I can head up Trail again.  It’s a restless feeling that I just can’t shake. 

So, if you happen to see me or any of the people involved with this incident then please have patience with us.  We’re tired, frustrated, nervous, and on the edge from the Ham Lake Fire.  Keep this in mind if we aren’t ourselves and please don’t take it personally.  We’re doing the best we can, one day at a time.     

May 14th Part 2

I did receive confirmation from a reliable source that the Ham Lake Fire has been active on
Saganaga Lake in both Minnesota and Canada .  The fire is reported to have been burning actively on Horseshoe Island , Connor’s Island, Red Pine Island, the island to the north of Red Pine  and possibly on Camper’s Island .  A number of campsites and one structure have been burned by the fire on Saganaga.

     The reports about evacuating people from Saganaga appear to be true as well as the rumor about people staying behind.   Seven Americans were evacuated on Sunday and it sounds like Irv Benson and the folks at Sagonto remained to help set up sprinklers and try to save properties.  The cloud cover, high humidity and wind from the north hopefully helped fire crews to keep the fire from spreading farther.  I hope to get out and see what is happening first hand tomorrow.  

     The Type I Team in charge of the Ham Lake Fire is getting more and more confident each day.  More of the perimeter of the fire is getting secured each day with 50% of the U.S. perimeter secured and 20% of the overall fire contained.  The threat to private property is less and less each day.  The progress being made is great but it is scary to see our support crews leaving the area.  We sure hope we won’t need to call them back.  

     Power has been restored at Voyageur, now if they will just let us return home.  We’re so grateful to have a home to return to as many people have lost theirs, 61 residences so far and a total of 133 structures.  It’s such a tragedy to see these places destroyed by fire knowing the people and their losses make it so much harder.  The total acres burned are 74,814 with 36,433 in the U.S. and 38,371 in Canada. 

     In case you didn’t know it, all entry points into the Boundary Waters via the Gunflint Trail have been closed through the 19th of May.  In addition to the entry points all campgrounds and hiking trails have been closed as well as most boat landings and forest areas accessed from the Gunflint Trail.  For a complete list of closures you can visit this website.  It definitely isn’t business as usual on the Gunflint Trail. 

     What does this mean to Voyageur and the other businesses on the Gunflint Trail?  I don’t know, I haven’t had time to think about it.  We’ve been too busy with the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department to even think about it.  We are grateful to have Marilyn in Grand Marais answering phone calls and taking care of e-mail.  

     The good thing about the Ham Lake Fire is very little of the Boundary Waters has burned.  This means awesome canoe trips into the wilderness for our guests.  It also means an awesome adventure up to the end of the Gunflint Trail to get a first hand view at forest fire.  We do not know when the USFS will open the entry points to the BWCA or when the Gunflint Trail itself will be safe for travel, estimated containment date is the 20th of May.  We do know we want to see you at Voyageur this summer.  If it isn’t in May or June then we hope you will visit us later in the summer or fall.  

     The forecast is calling for rain and we hope the weather predictors are right.  We would be very happy to be confident the Ham Lake Fire is contained.  Please keep the Gunflint Trail in your thoughts and your prayers.

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