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Ham Lake fire blows up in hot weather

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Hastings, 55033
Hastings Minnesota 745 Spiral Boulevard 55033

SEAGULL LAKE -- Strong west winds fanned life back into the Ham Lake fire Tuesday, pushing it into new areas, torching pine trees and filling the Gunflint Trail air with smoke as thick as storm clouds.

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At least one additional building burned Tuesday near the end of the Gunflint Trail.

"We had a lot of fire activity today in the residential area, and we lost at least one additional structure, apparently an outbuilding," Mike Martin, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, told reporters at an 8:30 p.m. briefing near Gunflint Lake. "The local fire departments had a lot of saves today. ... The fact we had that much fire up there and didn't lose many more buildings is amazing.''

By 5 p.m., the blood-red sun was barely visible through the smoke, even miles away from the fire, and ash fell from the sky.

After a calm day Monday that allowed firefighters and the local community to catch their breath, Tuesday's winds and continued hot, bone-dry conditions reminded firefighters and the public that it will be days, if not weeks, until the fire is no longer considered a threat.

"It isn't unexpected. It's part of ongoing fire behavior. But it is something we're concerned about," said John Stegmeir, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fire expert. Stegmeir had commanded the firefighting effort until a national fire command team arrived Tuesday.

After pushing west on Saturday, then north on Sunday, the fire was headed east on Tuesday, into an area of downed trees from the 1999 blowdown and toward Ontario. It also threatened private property along the Gunflint Trail and was burning again near the fire's starting point. By nightfall, winds had shifted yet again and were pushing the fire northeast.

By 7 p.m., firefighting aircraft had shifted water pickups to Gunflint Lake, a signal that fire hotspots were moving toward developed areas.

There was no way for fire leaders to get an accurate count of how many more square miles the fire had burned because there was too much smoke obscuring the ground. Ground crews and aircraft were too busy battling fire to take stock. The fire is estimated to have burned

25 square miles, or 16,500 acres. By comparison, Duluth's total size is about 68 square miles.

The weather forecast for today is not good -- continued dry conditions, with high temperatures near 80 degrees and a southwest wind up to 20 mph.

While some residents were allowed Tuesday to visit their homes briefly, destroyed or intact, the Cook County Sheriff's Department quickly called all non-firefighters out of the Seagull-Saganaga Lake areas as the fire grew again.

"It came up too fast today. We can't have people in there when the fire is moving again like this," Sheriff Mark Falk said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took an aerial tour of the fire area Tuesday morning and later met with residents at the Gunflint Fire Hall. He praised local, state and federal firefighters, but said "there were still some issues we need to resolve" about why a campfire ban was not in place before the fire started.

An unattended campfire on Ham Lake is believed to be the cause of what is now the state's most destructive wildfire in terms of property damage in a half century or more. Several residents have complained that a campfire ban imposed earlier might have prevented tens of millions of dollars in destruction.

Pawlenty, talking with reporters with the Ham Lake fire smoke plume rising about eight miles in the background, stopped short of criticizing Superior National Forest officials for not ordering a ban earlier.

"It would be a little bit unfair ... to say they made the wrong call," Pawlenty said, noting the fire spread unusually quickly even at night.

Pawlenty fielded questions on possible government assistance for more residents to buy sprinkler systems for their property and on allowing more local control for counties to impose campfire bans. He offered no immediate state aid except continued firefighting support, and suggested the federal Small Business Administration may have emergency money available for businesses destroyed by the fire.

The governor called on local residents to come together, continuing Minnesota's "unbroken tradition" of helping neighbors through natural disasters.

Dan Bauman, Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department chief, predicted community spirit wouldn't be a problem along the storied Gunflint Trail. "As a community... we will rebuild," Bauman pledged.

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