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Oberstar tours Gunflint

ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- The cindered remains of Seagull Outpost had gone cool by Friday morning, but seeing them made U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar hot under the collar.

During a tour of the Ham Lake fire's damage Friday, Oberstar expressed frustration on behalf of resort and outfitter owners along the Gunflint Trail and opined that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had proved negligent in not responding to the region.

"Fire is the terror up here, not some Islamic extremist," the Chisholm Democrat said as he gingerly stepped through the plot of gritty ash and tarnished metal chunks. It was all that remained of the Seagull Outpost, once noted for its distinctive railing of spent canoe paddles. It had burned sometime during the Ham Lake fire's sweep through the area.

Oberstar stopped short of saying outright that he would seek disaster funding for the Gunflint Trail region, but did say he was trying to schedule a meeting with David Paulison, the head administrator of FEMA, on Tuesday.

He later added that he thinks the creation of the Department of Homeland Security siphoned away some of FEMA's best workers and seriously affected the federal government's ability to respond to natural disasters.

"The terrorist is the fire. The terrorist is the 100 mile-per-hour line-drive wind. That's what we should be protecting against," Oberstar said.

Oberstar flew over the Ham Lake fire's handiwork Friday morning and had lunch with Cook County commissioners, U.S. Forest Service officials and Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk afterward.

He was angered to learn that many businesses in the northern reaches of the Gunflint Trail didn't have phone service and probably wouldn't get it until August.

"That's devastating," Oberstar said after the meeting. "As one person said, 'The fire didn't kill us, but lack of communication will.' "

Some businesses have been able to use cell phones thanks to temporary cell phone towers brought up the Gunflint. Resort and outfitter owners said cell phone service is a good start, but no real substitute.

"Most businesses have three or four (phone) lines, so one cell phone doesn't cut it," said Lee Kerfoot, an owner of the Gunflint Lodge.

Satellite-based Internet helped Shari Baker, who owns Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground with her husband, stay in touch with her customers. She wrote about the fire in her online journal.

"Most of my people kind of watched my blog and wrote back by e-mail," Baker said. Gunflint Pines will be mostly full this Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the tourist season.

Oberstar said he had heard landline phone service couldn't be restored to the Gunflint until August and said the lack of communication would hurt Gunflint Trail businesses, which are heading into peak tourist season.

"They might as well have all burned to the ground," he said later. "This is every bit as much a disaster as the Ninth Ward," referring to the New Orleans neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Oberstar was to conclude his trip with a meeting with area residents later Friday. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has announced plans to visit the region for a three-day trip, starting Monday.