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Smoke from the fire can be seen from a cemetery in Ely on Thursday, May 17, 2012. (Warren Davis / for the News Tribune)

Fire turned back just outside Ely

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Fire crews and a wind switch combined to beat back a raging forest fire this afternoon that burned to the edge of Ely.

City officials rescinded an evacuation order for the southeastern portion of the city at about 6 p.m., allowing residents to return home after a close call for the city with a population of 3,480. No injuries were reported and officials say no occupied homes were lost.

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The fire started at about 1:45 p.m. apparently when a vehicle drove over a downed power line on Minnesota Highway 1 about one mile south of town.

Southerly winds gusting to 35 mph then blew the fire rapidly toward town, expanding to about 100 acres by Thursday evening as it consumed pine trees and dry grass along the way.

"The latest report is that they have a handle on it -- that it got very close to some homes but that they haven't lost any structures as far as we know. Power is out, but they did save an electrical substation," Jean Goad, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, said at 5 p.m. "It's still early but it looks good; better than it did an hour ago."

Lt. Ed Kippley of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said he heard "a couple of garages" may have been lost but that he couldn't confirm that.

Goad said a wind switch from the south to the west at late afternoon helped stop pushing the fire into the city and that helicopters and CL-215 water-dropping bombers continued to hammer away at the fire's front and flanks, dropping both water and flame retardant. Winds were so strong at one point that they prevented a large plume from developing above the fire, instead pushing smoke and ash onto the city.

The southeast corner of Ely was the most in harm's way, and parts of Ely south of White Street and east of Fifth Avenue East were ordered evacuated by Ely Mayor Roger Skraba. Rides were offered for anyone who couldn't leave on their own.

Eyewitnesses in Ely agreed that the fire seemed to be diminishing by about 4 p.m.

"The fire was right up to the Ely cemetery," said Warren Davis, an assistant fire captain for the Berkeley (Calif.) Fire Department, who is on vacation in the area and e-mailed photos to the News Tribune. At about 4 p.m., "from the look of the smoke now, I think they have stopped it. The smoke has gone from black to white and there's no column at all now."

WELY-FM was notifying people online of the evacuations and approaching fire but its radio station was off the air due to the power outage.

Ely officials called a community meeting for 8:30 p.m. at the Vermilion Community College theater for anyone who has questions about the fire.

Aircraft buzzed low over the city and fire trucks were racing toward the fire at midafternoon when St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said the strong winds had blown the fire right up to the city limits. He said fire-engine crews from Ely, Babbitt, the U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and numerous township volunteer fire departments joined to make a fire line on the southeast side of Ely.

"I'm standing here watching the fire blow right toward my house. We're concerned. ... But they are setting up a pretty good fire line on the edge of town. I think they can hold it if it comes this far," Forsman said at midafternoon. "There's a lot of ash falling."

The fire started on Superior National Forest land, Goad said. Highway 1 was closed south of Ely.

Grant Kleven of Duluth was an apparent eyewitness to the bizarre start to the fire. Kleven said he was driving his linen-service delivery truck on Highway 1 when he saw another vehicle hit the downed power line.

"The line sort of bounced up and sparked, and the sparks started a fire in the ditch. It hit a pine tree and it just went up instantly. ... The fire went like crazy. I had to back my truck out of there to avoid the flames," he said at about 2:30 p.m. "I'm sitting in Ely now and there's ash falling on me. The smoke just keeps coming over the city."

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said the volunteer St. Louis County Rescue Squad was called out to join his deputies in helping evacuate people near the front of the fire.

Paul Ivancich, owner of Dairy Queen in Ely, said the smoke seemed to be dissipating just after 4 p.m. as aircraft used water to battle the blaze.

"It seems like the smoke has subsided with the barrage of plane activity," he said. "I think our business is pretty safe."

His home, however, on White Street at 12th Avenue East, was in the area of Ely that was ordered to be evacuated.

"We evacuated some of the stuff out of our home just as a precaution," Ivancich said. "We moved some valuable pictures and a strongbox and stuff. I saw a helicopter dump a couple loads of fire retardant on homes right across from where I live."

James Kenney of Voyageur North Outfitters said the fire was a few blocks away from the business at 1829 E. Sheridan St. in Ely and water was being dropped over the trees of the nearby cemetery.

Ethan Moore, who works at Piragis Northwoods Co. on North Central Avenue, said there was a lot of aerial fire work happening at 4 p.m.

"The big yellow water dumpers are up there," he said. "They closed the schools and extra-curricular activities. A few local businesses have closed down."

He said the wind was dying down but it was quite smoky in town all afternoon.

"It could be quite bad, but right now everyone is playing it by ear," he said.

Ely-Bloomenson Hospital on the west side of town, away from the fire, was notified about 3:15 p.m. to go on precautionary standby, administrator John Fossum said.

The school system sent two buses to help with evacuation if that became necessary, he said, and hospitals in Cook and Virginia were notified.

By late afternoon, it appeared no evacuation would be necessary but the hospital remained on standby in case the situation changed, Fossum said.

"We've been through the process of getting ready, and it was a good drill if nothing else," he said. "We're ready if something more happens."

The hospital had 11 patients and the adjacent nursing home more than 40 residents, Fossum said.

The Cook and Virginia hospitals offered to send ambulances if needed, he said.

"It's great the way people pull together," Fossum said.

Rick Hluchan, assistant forecaster with the National Weather Service in Duluth, said winds should diminish to about 10 mph this evening with a chance of rain in Ely. There's a very good chance of measurable rain on Saturday evening, he said.

News Tribune staff writers Sam Cook, Jana Hollingsworth and John Lundy contributed to this report.

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John Myers
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