Ely evacuation area expandedCrews this afternoon are battling a fast-moving forest fire just outside Ely that apparently started when a vehicle drove over a downed power line.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Crews this afternoon are battling a fast-moving forest fire just outside Ely that apparently started when a vehicle drove over a downed power line.
Eyewitnesses in Ely said flames could be seen from the city and smoke was enveloping the town.
The southeast corner of Ely appeared to be the most in harm’s way, and parts of Ely south of White Street and east of Fifth Avenue East have been ordered to evacuate by Ely Mayor Roger Skraba. That’s larger than the original evacuation zone.
Anyone who can’t leave on their own should call 911 for transportation.
“The fire was right up to the Ely cemetery. The part of town near the Pamida is right in the path,” said Warren Davis, an assistant fire captain for a California fire department who is on vacation in the area and who e-mailed photos to the News Tribune.
WELY-FM is notifying people of the evacuations and fire but its radio station is off the air due to the power outage.
St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said the strong winds have blown the fire to within a quarter mile of Ely by about 3:15 p.m. He said fire engine crews from Ely, Babbitt, the U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and numerous township volunteer fire departments are making 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. “There’s a lot of ash falling.”
The fire started about 1:45 p.m. along Minnesota Highway 1 about one mile south of Ely, said Jean Goad, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.
Fire-engine crews, helicopters and two CL-215 water-bombing airplanes were trying to douse the fire that already had expanded to an estimated 20 acres by 2:30 p.m.
Highway 1 has been closed.
“They’re hitting as hard as they can. There are some evacuations south of town. They are calling in ’dozers and more engines,’’ Goad said. “It’s very windy out there.”
The fire started on Superior National Forest land, she said.
Grant 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.”
Winds were blowing from the south at 22 mph this afternoon, gusting to 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service. While most of the Northland has received ample rain of late, the Arrowhead remains in a very dry period.
“We’ve just paged out our rescue squad to help with some evacuations,” St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said. “It’s growing rapidly and we don’t have a lot of information yet.”
Paul Ivancich, owner of Dairy Queen in Ely, said he could see smoke from his store, which is a few blocks from Minnesota Highway 1.
“It’s pretty smoky,” Ivancich said. “And it’s a south wind. But we’re OK. We’ve got a little bit of soot floating around our parking lot. Downtown is fairly clear. It’s just down here by Highway 1. We’ve got airplanes and helicopters flying over, dumping stuff on this thing.”
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. There’s a very good chance of measurable rain on Saturday evening, he said.