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Seagull Lake residents used boat to escape

James Raml and his friend Ted Young had been hosing down Raml's home on the south shore of Seagull Lake for many hours on Sunday when they heard the wind had shifted.

The Ham Lake fire was running fast toward a stand of young jack pine, straight toward the line of homes at the end of Seagull Lake Road. Raml was about to tell Young it was time to pack up and go "when the next thing I know, I felt really hot, and I heard that roaring sound," Raml said on Monday.

He turned, and saw 50-foot flames rolling over a ridge about 100 feet from his home.


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Raml, Young and Raml's golden retriever ran for Raml's boat and spent the next several hours on Seagull Lake, waiting for the flames all around them to die down.

"I saw some of my friends' houses burning," Raml said.

But by the time Raml and Young made it back to the south shore, they saw something surprising: Raml's home -- and those of three neighbors -- still standing, a thin line of unburned ground surrounding them. And Raml's cat was still inside, meowing for its owner.

"If we didn't have our sprinkler systems, we would have burned," Raml said. Several U.S. Forest Service workers also had helped the two run their sprinkler systems and cut down balsam trees near the buildings.

Monday was a day to rest and regroup for many Gunflint Trail residents who had spent Sunday either scrambling to escape or battling wind-driven flames that raced along the corridor -- sometimes both.

Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dan Baumann caught about four hours of sleep after fighting the fire for 24 hours straight.

"You watch fires like this on the screen, and you train for them, but you never see them," Baumann said. On Sunday, they saw.

"These are our communities, our neighbors," Baumann said. "... these are homes, memories, their history. You don't replace those. Losing the woods is one thing, but ..."

Baumann said one canoe outfitter along the trail lost "at least half" of its buildings, though he wouldn't say which outfitter.

Despite the fact that some had lost buildings to fire, many of the 100 or so people who attended an informational meeting at the Gunflint Fire Hall on Monday "were pleasantly thankful, grateful and calm," said Dave Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters and the spokesman for the Gunflint Trail Association.

The buildings that had sprinkler systems installed seemed to be the ones that survived, Seaton said. Many residents installed sprinklers that can dampen roofs and walls after major fires years ago. Cook County sheriff's deputies are "currently investigating every driveway" to get an accurate count of how many and what kind of buildings burned, Seaton said.

People were happy no one had been hurt, and they gave the U.S. Forest Service a round of applause, Seaton said.

Nevertheless, "it is sad to hear that some structures have been lost," said Marilyn Kufahl, manager of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint Trail. Several buildings were destroyed at the business, though the main lodge and storage buildings survived unscathed, she said.

Three employee cabins -- including a new one that had been occupied only days earlier --burned, Kufahl said, and the employee that had moved in to the cabin lost most of her belongings.

"The landscape will be changed once we get back in there," Kufahl said. "It's your home, and to see change will be so sad."

Raml wondered if there is going to be much to see once they go back. He said he felt for his friends who lost homes and cabins; in one case, all that remained of a cabin was a stone chimney, he said. He lamented the 20 acres of forest he had replanted with young pines, now burned away.

"We've had a long time to practice, and everyone has had to face the possibility that their building might not be there after the next [fire]," Seaton said. "And now, it's finally happened."