10 years later: Remembering the Gunflint Trail’s Ham Lake Fire

The small lakes at the far end of the Gunflint Trail are the epitome of tranquility. But it's taken the better part of the 10 years since the Ham Lake fire for the area to get back to its old self. Round Lake, pictured here last summer, was in the middle of it all. (Brian Peterson photo)

MAPLE HILL, Minn. — Bruce Kerfoot will never forget standing on his dock on Gunflint Lake, just south of the Canadian border, watching the fire rage on the opposite shore.

“My mouth was wide open,” he told Minnesota Public Radio. “With flames a couple hundred feet high, moving at about 25 to 30 miles an hour, and a 30,000-foot smoke plume that you could see from International Falls. The sound of it was like a roaring locomotive.”

Kerfoot called it the “devil’s fire” because winds kept pushing it in new directions. It circled around the lake to within a mile of the Gunflint Lodge, the resort his family had run for more than 80 years. He was told he had two hours to evacuate.

“I reached up and took down mother’s ‘Old Town’ canvas canoe, and strapped that on the top of our truck, and took her picture off the wall,” he said, pausing. “That one got to you. That’s your roots of a couple generations. And I wasn’t sure we were going to have anything left to come back to.”

Kerfoot was lucky. His lodge was spared. Others weren’t so fortunate.

The Ham Lake Fire began May 5, 2007, with a seemingly innocent campfire. It quickly blew out of control, fanned by erratic winds and fueled by tinder dry conditions.

It took 1,000 firefighters from around the country a week to finally corral it. By that time, 133 structures had burned, including one outfitting company and 61 homes and residences, most at the far end of the Gunflint Trail on Sea Gull and Saganaga lakes.

“When we drove down the roads, it was like a war zone,” remembered Dan Baumann, assistant chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department. It was his job to check on cabins after the area had been evacuated, put out spot fires, and triage cabins that were still standing.

By the time he reached them, many had already been engulfed in flames. He remembers the glow in the night sky, and what sounded like constant firecrackers going off — propane tanks exploding in the blaze.

Some homes escaped the fire unscathed.

After the blowdown of 1999, when severe winds knocked over millions of trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, more than 100 homeowners along the Gunflint Trail installed sprinkler systems because of the increased fire danger.

Michael Valentini installed one of those systems at his home at the end of the trail. When he returned after the fire burned through, he drove up his driveway, “and my hill was black,” he recalled. “All I saw was my sign that had ‘Valentini’ on it.”

But then he crested the hill, “and everything was green.” His house was untouched. “You wouldn’t know there was a fire if you couldn’t hear it and smell it.”

Only one home with an operating sprinkler system was destroyed in the fire.

FEMA awarded a $3 million grant to Cook County after the fire to install more sprinkler systems. Valentini estimates about 700 homeowners in the county have installed them.

Forest officials stress that sprinklers are not foolproof. They say it’s most important for homeowners to clear brush and trees away to create a defensible space for firefighters.

But since the Ham Lake Fire, officials say residents are much more cautious about fire and prepared for the next blaze.

“Our fire department grew as a result of the fire,” Valentini said. “That was a real plus.”

In fact, Valentini was one of the first new members to volunteer. The department now boasts more than 30 members. Local homeowners contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to build two new fire halls.

“It absolutely glued this community together,” said Nancy Seaton, who along with her husband David runs Hungry Jack Outfitters. “Our closest neighbor is several miles away, but I feel closer here than I ever did living in any city.”

Seaton helped organize a tree planting called the Gunflint Green Up the year after the fire. The response was overwhelming. Volunteers planted 75,000 trees the first year alone.

Those pines are now several feet tall. Aspens and jack pines have also sprouted since the fire. And bumper blueberry crops have lured new tourists up the trail.

But the landscape still shows scars. Huge granite outcroppings long hidden by trees are now visible all around. Blackened stumps stick out from among the young trees.

Those scars are largely invisible in the summer. And despite the devastation, almost every cabin owner chose to rebuild.

“There is a love for being up here,” explained Michael Valentini. “This is their mecca. This is where they want to be. There’s a lot of emotional investment in it.”

That was certainly true for Jan Siverston. An artist who owns galleries in Grand Marais, Minn., and Duluth, she lost the cabin on Seagull Lake she had owned for 20 years.

“It was eerie. Like a moonscape,” she said when she was first allowed in to see what was left. “The cabin was just a pile of rubble.”

Siverston misses the coziness of the tall jack pines that used to snuggle around her old cabin. But she never considered not rebuilding.

So, she built a new place, taller this time, to enjoy the incredible view of the lake and watch a new forest grow up around her.

“I was kind of in awe of the change that had occurred in such a short time,” she said. Now the forest continues “changing dramatically every year.”

Young neon-green jack pines are sprouting all around her new cabin, a sign of the new life that a wildfire yields. Wildfires cause jack pine cones to burst open, spreading their seeds to create a new generation of trees.

“Wildfire is a very natural part of the ecosystem,” said Patty Johnson, fire management officer for the Superior National Forest. “People love living here because it’s beautiful because it regenerated from fire at one time. It’s going to keep having fire. It’s meant to burn.”

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