Slide Show: Ely Forest Fire

ELY, Minn. (WCCO/AP) — A forest fire advanced within a few hundred yards of the popular tourist town of Ely on Thursday, prompting officials to evacuate a corner of the northeastern Minnesota community before firefighters stopped its advance.

Crews had the upper hand by early evening and some units were being released to go home, said Scott Camps, emergency services manager for the St. Louis County sheriff’s department. Flames could be seen earlier in the day and smoke loomed over the town of about 3,500 residents on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“They’re mopping up and cleaning up at this point,” Camps said. “Obviously it could take a day or longer to get all the hot spots that are still burning.”

The fire started on U.S. Forest Service land around 1:45 p.m. along Highway 1 about a mile south of Ely, Minnesota Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jean Goad said.

Officials believe the fire started when a tree fell and snapped a power line, and the fire spread quickly due to high winds and dry conditions, Camps said. The blaze burned as many as 150 acres before firefighters stopped its advance on the town.

Goad said emergency managers called in four water-scooping planes and two water-dropping helicopters, along with at least 10 fire engines and four bulldozers. The Forest Service took the lead in the fight, which involved several area fire departments at its peak. City Clerk Terry Lowell said Ely Fire Department crews returned to their base early Thursday evening.

Lowell said the fire came as close as 200 yards from city limits. Power was knocked out to part of town, including the local radio station, WELY, and transmitters for Minnesota Public Radio. Goad said an outbuilding outside of Ely was destroyed but there were no reports of injuries.

Mayor Roger Skraba declared a local emergency at 3:15 p.m.

An evacuation order was in effect for residences on the south side of White Street to 5th Avenue (in the west) and to Highway 1 (in the east).

Lowell said about 230 people lived in the voluntary evacuation area but he didn’t know how many left. They were allowed to return home a few hours later. Goad said an evacuation remained in effect Thursday night in a rural area along Highway 1 south of Ely.

During the evacuation period, residents were able to stay at the city’s community center.

Bob Artisensi, who has lived in the south of Ely for 35 years, said he saw the fire heading his way at 1 p.m. and started packing.

“The waterbombers were somewhere between 300-350 yards away from the house,” he said.

Artisensi was evacuated, but was able to return home Thursday evening.

With a hint of understatement and a smile he said the fire “brought a little bit of excitement” to the day.

Weather conditions in northeastern Minnesota have been extremely dry and the fire danger already was rated high. Afternoon winds blew from the south at 22 mph, gusting to 35 mph, with a temperature of 72 and relative humidity of 27 percent, according to the National Weather Service.

But the forecast called for a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms Thursday night.

Grant Kleven told the Duluth News Tribune that 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. … I had to back my truck out of there to avoid the flames,” he said.

Camps said he was unable to confirm that account with firefighters.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of the Ely Outfitting Company on the city’s main street, watched during the afternoon as the big water-scooping planes attacked the blaze from the air.

“They’re circling directly above downtown,” Zabokrtsky said. “Wow. Right over the treetops. Holy moley!”

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