Whack a Mole
This is my all time favorite carnival game. You know the one, the mole pops his head up out of a hole and then you try to whack it with a rubber mallet? That was what today was like except it was fires popping up everywhere and planes and firefighters trying to knock them back down.
Mike and I were kept busy patrolling Sag Lake Trail. The houses with sprinklers required very little attention, the ones without were a completely different story. We would drive down one driveway to find fire creeping up the hill towards a cabin and then call for a fire truck to come and spray it down. Then we would head down another road to find another cabin in danger of flames and call for more assistance. While checking for hot spots near cabins flames were erupting all around us.
We drove up and down the roads while flames consumed the trees. The smoke was thick, ashes were floating everywhere, and we constantly had to keep an eye out for falling trees and branches. Fire crews on other roads at the end of the Gunflint Trail did the same thing and were constantly in harms way.
Again we were lucky. No lives were lost. Structures are lost and are replaceable. Lives are not.
The Ham Lake fire started out slowly on Saturday morning but picked up steam throughout the night. I planned to attend the 11:00 fire briefing at the Gunflint Fire Hall on Gunflint Lake on Sunday. I was going to bring my kids to play at Bakers while I was at the meeting, but on my way, I heard Mike on the radio mention the word EVACUATION. I was driving and stopped to speak to a couple of homeowners who were on the side of the road, watching a fire creep in a swamp towards the Gunflint Trail. I advised them to go back to their cabin and turned around other cars as they approached me. I asked them to notify their neighbors and to start their phone trees to alert others of the evacuation.
I proceeded to the fire hall where I quickly dropped the kids off and headed back to the end of the Trail. Mike had me stop at the Seagull Guard Station where I was to pick up another member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department to help with the evacuation. We were assigned Gull Lake Lane and Watter’s Point off of Sag Lake Trail. We drove down every driveway to make sure there was no one home.
Other members of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department were assigned to evacuate other residents at the end of the Gunflint Trail. There were lots of cabins to check down long, curvy, dirt roads with only 8 GTVFD members, 1 border patrol, and a Deputy. Everything was happening quickly and the fire was moving faster than anyone could keep track of.
I knew we were in danger at Voyageur and Marilyn, Ian and Theresa were still there. We hadn’t even thought about starting our sprinklers up and our reliable neighbor Michael Valentini was away for the weekend. By this time anyone at the end of the Gunflint Trail who hadn’t evacuated immediately was trapped. The stranded evacuees from our road were staged at the Sag Lake Public Landing. Theresa and Ian were busy bringing boats around to the public landing in case we needed to evacuate to the North by water.
Things were going from bad to worse at the end of the Trail. Our power was lost, our phone lines were down and we were right in the line of fire. I needed to find Don so he could get our sprinkler system going, but I couldn’t reach him on the radio. As I frantically searched the roads for him I ran into a neighbor, Tony Faras and asked him to please go and see if he could start our sprinkler system.
I continued down the Trail and found Don. He was keeping an eye on the wall of flames that kept jumping the Gunflint Trail, preventing the safe evacuation of residents and the arrival of help. Mutual Aid from other communities were called in, all volunteer fire departments with a minimum drive of one hour to get to the end of the Trail.
I went back to Voyageur to evacuate Marilyn, Ian and Theresa. I told them to load some belongings, the dog, my photo albums and some of the children’s favorite things. I wanted them out of danger and ready to go as soon as the opportunity to travel back down the Trail arose.
Word finally came that there was a window of opportunity to travel the Trail. The Fire Trucks, law enforcement, Michael Valentini and Mike headed North and then the remaining evacuees headed south. By the time the resources were allowed to head north, Seagull Lake was hot with flames.
The wind was strong and relentless. Volunteers went to cabins that had sprinkler systems installed and attempted to start the pumps. Since it was so early in the season, most homeowners hadn’t been up the Trail to their cabins so their sprinklers were not ready to run. They were sitting as they had sat all winter; not primed and not ready to go.
The process of getting pumps started was not going well. The lake level was about 2 feet lower than normal and some of the water intake hoses were not long enough to reach the water. Some systems had parts that were broken and there wasn’t time to fix them.
We knew the fire was going to consume the end of the Trail. There were a few people who were refusing to leave and we did our best to convince them to leave as soon as there was a break in the fire. I did not want to leave the end of the Trail but when the next opportunity to evacuate arose, Mike assured them I would be joining the caravan.
I wasn’t with the rest of the group because my heart did not want to leave the end of the Trail. My mind was telling me to go to the kids, but it was not an easy decision to make. By the time I headed down the Trail flames were jumping every which way. Tree limbs were falling from the sky, ashes were raining down, and fire consumed both sides of the Gunflint Trail.
As I sat behind the wheel I wondered what the heck I was doing. I feared I would come upon a downed tree in the road and be trapped without an escape route. My car heated up from the intense fire that surrounded it and I feared my tires would melt to the pavement.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it any longer the smoke cleared and the flames subsided. I had made it and I had made it alive. While I was relieved for my own safety I prayed for all of the others left at the end of the Gunflint Trail. I didn’t know if they would make it out and I didn’t know if there would be anything left when I returned.