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Photo courtesy of Clint Austin, Duluth News Tribune photographer.

Lake County firefighters respond as Bluefin Bay units hit by blaze

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Several Lake County emergency responders hit the road this weekend to assist at the scene of the Bluefin Bay resort fire, which caused severe damage to popular North Shore destination.

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The Silver Bay and Finland fire departments joined several Cook County agencies at the scene of the fire in Tofte, about 30 miles north of Silver Bay, on Saturday.

"I've been on for 3 ½ years, and this is certainly one of the bigger structure fires I can remember," said Danette Sundvick, a Finland firefighter.

In rural areas like the North Shore, it's crucial for surrounding fire departments to respond to large fires, Sundvick noted, in order to provide the necessary resources. Finland Fire, for example, was called in because it's the only area station that can refill the oxygen tanks worn by firefighters.

"Helping each other out is what it's all about," she said.

Saturday's fire damaged five of the resort's 70 vacation rental units. Nobody was in the units at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported.

A preliminary investigation into the cause of the fire is focusing on a wood-burning fireplace and chimney. Dennis Rysdahl, owner and general manager of the resort, said he provided a fire marshal with documentation showing the fireplace and flue were in good working order when last examined.

"We had them inspected a couple of months ago, and they were given a clean bill of health," he said.

Rysdahl reported that Bluefin Bay hires a company to clean and inspect chimneys on its property two times a year, in November and April. After each cleaning, the flues also are examined with a video camera, he said.

"Our guests burn a lot of wood," Rysdahl said, explaining the rationale for the intensive maintenance regimen.

Rysdahl said it was too early to estimate how much it will cost to make repairs. If all goes well, repairs could be completed within three months, he said.

"The first thing we'll need to do is to get the roof fixed and the units enclosed to contain the noise, so our guests can enjoy themselves. People come here for the peace and quiet, not to hear hammers and Skil saws," Rysdahl said.

Firefighters spent much of the day Saturday battling the stubborn fire. Four units were severely damaged and another sustained water damage, Rysdahl said.

The Tofte Volunteer Fire Department, which has its headquarters adjacent to Bluefin Bay on state Highway 61, led the firefighting efforts. They were joined by units from Schroeder, Silver Bay, Finland, Maple Hill, Colvill, Hovland, Grand Marais and Lutsen, along with Cook County Ambulance and the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Cook County dispatch reported that an "all call" had gone out to all departments in the county, to provide additional manpower for battling the fire.

At one time, as many as five additional units were threatened, Rysdahl said. Everyone in the affected building was evacuated, and a nearby building also was evacuated as a precautionary measure as firefighters from nine departments fought the blaze.

The evacuations affected about 80 to 100 guests.

Rysdahl said staff members at the resort have scrambled to find alternate accommodations for guests who had booked the damaged units.

Rysdahl said the resort was nearly full and houses between 250 and 300 people when it's at capacity. The resort employs about 150 people during the peak summer season, he said.

"Starting at this time of year, every day is like a Saturday," he said. "So this was a particularly bad time for this to happen."

Rysdahl was construction manager when the resort was built in 1983 and has run the company ever since. He said Saturday's fire was "on its way" to becoming the most serious incident in his 30 years there. But he was philosophical about it.

"We are well-insured and nobody was injured," he said.

Rysdahl said the resort has received much support from guests, past and present.

"We've had people in tears because Bluefin means so much to them," he said.

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