Fast attack helped save Ely from fire

Published 7:05 am Sunday, May 20, 2012

ELY — When a downed power line sparked a wildfire in the dry forest near the northeastern Minnesota town of Ely, firefighters were ready to hit it fast and hard.

The fire was reported at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, about 10 minutes after it started. The first engine pulled up three minutes later, just as a spotter plane arrived overhead. The first responders called for a big Skycrane helicopter 10 minutes later, and it started dropping water onto the blaze at 2:01 p.m. The first water-scooping tanker planes arrived just over an hour later.

The quick response was crucial in stopping the fire just a few hundred yards from homes on the south side of Ely, a community of about 3,500 people that’s a primary outfitting and entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Thousands of visitors a year flock to its North American Bear Center and its International Wolf Center.

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Officials said Friday they were able to attack the fire so fast and save the town because they were prepared for it — they had people, fire trucks and aircraft nearby and on alert.

Luck also played a role, though. The fire started right alongside Highway 1 and followed it north toward the city. That made it easier to rush fire trucks and crews from several local volunteer fire departments to the scene. The Skycrane, which sucks up water through a long “snorkel,” happened to be standing by at the Ely airport.