ISABELLA, MINN. — Several weeks after the Greenwood Fire tore through Superior National Forest, engine crews began cooling down hot spots buried 2-4 feet in the peat soil in the eastern and southern portions of the blaze.
A day after that action, they used tracked feller bunchers to clear trees in the southeast to help identify even more hot spots on Wednesday, as engines patrolled the highway corridor and dozers further secured the fireline in the northeast.
The U.S. Forest Service expected the area fire to stop moving due to low temperatures and high humidity. Another day of rain and possible thunderstorms may help keep the fire at bay, though there remained a slow burn in the peat layer.
The forecast called for warmer temperatures in the upcoming days, but “the weather should improve,” with more rain into September, said National Weather Service incident meteorologist Rick Davis, who is embedded with 341 federal and state personnel tasked with subduing the blaze.
As of Wednesday morning, the Greenwood Fire had burned 26,112 acres, roughly double the size of Virginia and was 49 percent contained. There remained flight restrictions and a number of closures, including various roads and McDougal Lake.
But there were signs of normalcy, as the Lake County Sheriff, which previously allowed about 50 local full-time residents back into their homes, lifted evacuations that morning for roughly 150 seasonal homeowners along Highway 1. The Superior National Forest loosened restrictions, once again permitting campground fires.
The Greenwood fire was detected on Aug. 15, a Sunday. Lightning had hit 10 miles southwest of Isabella, an unincorporated community about 40 miles southeast of Ely. Firefighters worked 10-15 hour days against a blaze that moved north and spread quickly over 1,000 acres. “We threw everything we had at it and we were ineffective with our efforts,” said Patrick Johnson, a Grand Marias based USFS fire behavior analyst and fuels specialist, who joined crews from across the country in fighting the blaze. The fire slowed down, but on Aug. 23, it spread to 20,000 acres, and the big run ended in the destruction of 14 homes and 57 outbuildings in the McDougal Lake area. Deer, black bear, gray wolves and moose were forced to relocate. No injuries have been reported.
He stood before a swath of burned down forest in the northwest corner of the Greenwood Fire on Wednesday pointing out burned balsam fir and red pines and Aspen birch in the section of forest estimated at 70 to 100 years old. The blackened grounds offered evidence to what would have been 800 degree temperatures and flames as high as 75 feet tall.
“Not really survivable conditions,” he said, noting the inability to salvage the charcoaled logs for timber. He later added, “It will become a woodpecker habitat.”
The USFS crews from across the country fought the blaze with aircraft; it was the only effective tool. Then, the rain came. But the grounds remain dry and the recreation area will continue to be closed. The local, wind-driven fire continues to present problems insofar as it can go on burning beneath the peat layer, several feet beneath the earth.
Johnson showed the media a burnout operation along Highway 1, where fire crews had completed a prescribed burn in 2019. The effort proved worthwhile, since flames only rose about 2-4 feet tall during the current blaze, giving crews a safe haven as the first area of containment. “It was a great operation to make a stand against the fire,” he said.
In nearby Finland, a USFS employee dropped off fire updates at the local cooperative general store.
Pam Knaffla, 55, bought food to bring home in Murphy City, in between the unincorporated towns of Finland and Isabella. She hand-counted 14 neighbors who live in the remote area, many without cell reception and internet. She learned about the fire from her daughter who lives in Minneapolis and found herself packing up her irreplaceable belongings — family photographs, mainly.
“I was waiting and seeing,” said Knaffla, who has asthma, as she thumbed through recent cell phone photographs of black skies and smoke filled air she sent via text message to her daughter. “I brought my dog everywhere just in case we got evacuated. If the wind would’ve kept going, it would’ve swept through here.”
She remembered being here during the Pagami Creek Fire that burned 92,000 acres in northern Minnesota after a lightning strike in 2011. “I got home insurance after that one,” she said. Her house remains intact, but she recalled spending time with Isabella homeowners who were recently evacuated and in fear while escaping at the Four Seasons Supper Club. “They were in tears,” she said.