Boundary Waters Canoe Area closing as Greenwood fire continues to grow

Due to the quickly spreading Greenwood fire, the U.S. Forest Service is closing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as flames threaten the popular camping and canoeing spot.

In a statement Saturday afternoon, the Forest Service says the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will close for seven days due to the fire. The closure includes all land, waters, portages, campsites, canoe routes, and entry points to the wilderness.

The Forest Service says it will reopen the area as soon as it is safe to do so.

In recent days, the Greenwood wildfire has doubled in size, as strong winds have pushed the fire further north. The fire has now been burning for nearly a week after being first identified on Sunday 15 miles southwest of Isabella, Minnesota.

Since first being discovered, Operations Chief Peter Glover with the U.S. Forest Service says the fire has jumped the Highway 2 corridor moving north, quickly spreading from 4,700 acres on Thursday to covering more than 9,000 acres by Saturday morning with zero containment so far.

The Forest Service has brought in extra crews including a hotshot crew from South Dakota to battle the flames but say the fire so far has been challenging to get under control.

Glover says more winds are expected on Saturday and could push the fire towards the McDougal Lake area. Fireteams have crafted a defensive plan to protect the lake, Glover says.

"It's unfortunate we’re in this situation but we can’t change the conditions where they’re at how dry it is and how dangerous it is for wildfire potential," said Superior National Forest spokesperson Tim Engrav.

Forest officials say the only other time the Boundary Waters were closed because of wildfires was back in 1976. Dropping water on the Greenwood fire on the edge of the Superior National Forest is the only way crews can access active fires in remote areas.

"There are evacuations of private homes and cabins that are involved in that fire right now," added Engrav.

Further north from the Greenwood fire, in the heart of the Boundary Waters, the John Elk fire is spreading even faster.

"One that was really small yesterday at the start of the day, the John Elk fire went from three acres to at least 1,500, maybe 1,600 acres late yesterday in one day," said Engrav.

The speed of that spread is one reason forest officials don’t want visitors in the forest – especially since getting in and out of the Boundary Waters – is challenging.

"Because we don’t know where the next fire may start or where the next wind event might push a fire and make it large really quickly," said Engrav.

That means travelers are forced to cut their trips short or cancel altogether. John O’Kane, who runs Voyageur North Canoe Outfitters, said he has to cancel around 100 trips this week for around 400 people.

"We were just getting over COVID-19 last year and then this was a hit," said O'Kane. "Restaurants and bars are going to feel it up here too."

Engrav says over the next few days wilderness crews will continue evacuating visitors in the Boundary Waters while fire crews, some coming to help from as far as Pennsylvania, try and contain the fires.

"Over the next couple of days, we’ll continue to work and monitor the fires that are ongoing," added Engrav. "Our wilderness crews will continue to work through the process."

Evacuations ordered

Evacuation orders were issued earlier this week for McDougal Lake, Sand Lake, the Highway 2 corridor and just north of Highway 1. A Red Cross shelter has been set up at the Finland Community Center for those who have been evacuated.

Road, forest closures 

Highway 2 is closed from Forest Highway 11 to Highway 1. Highway 1 is closed from New Tomahawk Road to Lankinen Road. The Forest Service has also closed a portion of the Superior National Forest that extends across areas within the Kawishiwi, Laurentian and Tofte Ranger Districts and a small portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Air quality alert in effect until Monday

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued an air quality alert effective until 3 p.m. until Monday for Lake and Cook counties due to smoke from the Greenwood Fire as well as the wildfires over the border in Canada. The affected area includes Isabella, Silver Bay, Grand Marais, and the tribal nation of Grand Portage.

Fine particle levels are expected to reach the Orange AQI category, a level that is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, for the affected area.