Evacuations ordered ahead of wildfire in northeast Minnesota

National Guard helicopters will join the battle as fire spreads north.

Greenwood Lake fire
The Greenwood Lake fire continued to advance north Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, pushed by gusty south winds, and was only about a mile from cabins in the McDougal chain of lakes area. Contributed / Superior National Forest
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NEAR GREENWOOD LAKE, Minn. — Law enforcement agencies on Monday, Aug. 16, concentrated on the safety and evacuation of residents in the path of the Greenwood Lake Fire in Lake County near Isabella, Minn.

U.S. Forest Service officials said crews were battling the blaze on the ground and from the air but that more help was being called in as gusty south winds continue to push the fire north.

Wildfires in Minnesota generally grow during warm, dry, windy afternoons and calm down at night when cooler, more humid air settles in. But the Greenwood Lake fire here continued to grow even overnight into Monday morning.

According to Jeb Backe, incident commander for the fire for the Forest Service, the fire grew by an estimated 500 acres overnight to an estimated 1,500 acres total.


McDougal lakes chain.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Residents and campers in the McDougal chain of lakes area and nearby Fredrickson Road were given a mandatory evacuation notice at 10:45 a.m. Monday, Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said.

Johnson said only about eight people remained overnight after a pre-evacuation notice was sent late Sunday.

“This morning we were just going through and doing a final sweep to make sure there was no one left,” Johnson said, adding there are about 50 cabins and homes in the evacuation area.

Backe said the cause of the fire is still unknown.

At midafternoon Monday in the area, temperatures were in the mid-80s with winds gusting to 17 mph — ideal conditions for fires to spread rapidly. Warm, dry and breezy conditions — with little chance of major rainfall — are forecast for much of the week.

If the fire moves closer to either Minnesota Highway 1 or Lake County Highway 2, the roads may be closed, Backe said. As of Monday afternoon, both remained open.

The Greenwood fire is the latest among dozens of wildfires in northeastern Minnesota during a drought-parched summer that has seen little rain along with unusually warm temperatures and low humidity levels. But this is the first big wildfire to threaten developed areas, with most being in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.


Bob Bingham and his daughter, Jessica, were at their Steamhaul Lake home on Sunday evening when they noticed the plume of smoke in the sky. On Monday, they drove to the firefighting command center at the intersection of highways 1 and 2 to get more information.

“This is just crazy,” Bob Bingham said. “I’ve been living up here for 35 years and I've never seen a drought like this.”

Bingham said he received word of the fire and the pre-evacuation notice Monday evening, but hadn’t heard anything since then, prompting him to seek out more information.

“We thought they might have had the fire under control because the smoke wasn’t as intense” on Monday morning as it had been Sunday evening, Bingham said, noting he could be ready to go in a few minutes if need be as his home is just 1.5 miles north of Minnesota Highway 1.

Bingham was one of many people evacuated during the massive Pagami Creek fire just north of the same area a decade ago, so the situation was nothing new to him.

Fire departments from Silver Bay, Two Harbors, Ely, Babbitt, Finland and Fall Lake Township are working on the Greenwood Lake fire along with the Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other agency wildfire personnel.

Local Superior National Forest officials have put in a call for more and bigger aircraft as well as additional ground crews, and a regional command team will arrive within 48 hours to take over management of the fire.

The first response came from the Minnesota National Guard’s St. Paul-based 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion, which is sending two Black Hawk helicopters with water buckets, along with refueling crews, to the Greenwood Lake fire. Another fuel truck and crew will come from the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing. Sixteen soldiers and two airmen will be activated in support of this mission.


Gov. Tim Walz authorized the support following a request from the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.

The fire was initially detected just north of Greenwood Lake at about 3 p.m. Sunday. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday afternoon issued an air quality alert for central Lake County due to the thick smoke through Tuesday afternoon.

Resources stretched thin

Minnesota’s most threatening wildfire of a busy season comes as national and global firefighting resources are stretched thin, with dozens of major fires in western U.S. states already and likely months more dry weather ahead.

As of Monday morning the National Interagency Fire Center In Boise, Idaho, reported that 97 large fires have burned across nearly 2.2 million acres and that there are more than 25,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel now battling those fires. That’s more than double the number of firefighters sent to contain forest fires at this time a year ago, and one agency official last week said the Forest Service was facing "critical resource limitations.”

An estimated 6,170 firefighters were battling the Dixie Fire in northern California alone. That fire has been burning for a month and has destroyed 1,000 homes.


Superior National Forest officials on Sunday closed the McDougal Lake campground and boat landing and on Monday closed several additional areas as the fire moved north, including:

  • Little Isabella Campground
  • Flat Horn/Gegoka ski trails and trailheads.
  • Lake Gegoka Boat Access.
  • Stony River Observation Site.
  • Stony River Canoe Launch.
  • Flat Horn Lake Picnic Area.
  • Boat launches — Flat Horn Lake, Dragon, Beetle, Grass, Two Deere, Little Wampus, Sand Lake, Bearskin Lake, Surprise Lake, Grouse Lake, Shamrock Boat, Chub Lake, Dunnigan Lake and Gypsy Lake.
Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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