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Fires Force The U.S. Forest Service To Close Minnesota Wilderness Area

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Forest Service has closed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This wilderness in northern Minnesota includes 1 million acres of lakes and rivers and forest, many of which are now on fire. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Many of the fires here are burning within the Boundary Waters, but the largest is just south. It's the Greenwood Fire, and it scorched more than 30 square miles of forest and it's forced the evacuation of nearly 300 households. I met one of those evacuees, Doug Lande, at a recent public information meeting. He lives in the woods near the tiny town of Isabella.

DOUG LANDE: It's a summer from hell for watching the forest get compromised.

KRAKER: He says the forest is tinder dry from extreme drought and unusually hot weather. Earlier this week, gusty winds sent the fire roaring through a chain of lakes surrounded by dozens of homes and cabins. Mike Furtman and his wife got a call from the county sheriff telling him their cabin is still standing, but he's afraid the forest surrounding it will look like a moonscape.

MIKE FURTMAN: We're approaching 70, and it's not going to grow back in our lifetime. And, yeah, there's just so much uncertainty. It's just like a slow-motion disaster happening.

KRAKER: Just to the north in the Boundary Waters, wilderness rangers have paddled in to warn campers that they have to leave. The original closure order was set to expire today, but it's since been extended at least another week. That's a big blow for the many businesses that count on these few months to outfit those campers.

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: We have people from all 50 states who come here every summer to experience the Boundary Waters.

KRAKER: Jason Zabokrtsky runs the Ely Outfitting Company in the small town of Ely, which bills itself as the canoe capital of the world. In August, it's usually packed with visitors, canoes strapped to the tops of their cars. But not now.

ZABOKRTSKY: And, you know, to have sort of this immediate closure and have to tell somebody who's traveled from Texas or California and are, like, standing in front of us, ready to go out for a week in the woods, that actually everything's changed and your Boundary Waters vacation is off is really difficult.

KRAKER: The Forest Service is encouraging tourists to canoe and camp in areas outside the wilderness. And Zabokrtsky is trying to stay positive but says there's nothing comparable to paddling into the amazing Boundary Waters itself.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Ely, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.