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Chris Williams, Associated Press, Published September 15 2011

About 200 additional firefighters join attack on Minnesota wildfire

ISABELLA, Minn. — The attack on a large wildfire burning near the Minnesota-Canada border was expected to strengthen Thursday when about 200 additional firefighters join crews on the ground in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The added help brings the number of firefighters in northern Minnesota by the end of Thursday to more than 500, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

After overnight temperatures dropped below freezing, a light snowfall and calm winds, the wildfire that has spread to nearly 160 square miles of forest land does not appear to have expanded significantly since Wednesday, said Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Radosevich-Craig.

Firefighters will attack the fire in the northwest corner of the Boundary Waters, where it began with a lightning strike Aug. 18 and will also work on the southern edge of the wilderness, she said.

The fire, one of the largest on record in the state, took off quickly earlier in the week, as 30 mph wind gusts ahead of a cold front caused it to spread east. Just under half of the access points into the wilderness were closed to campers by midday Wednesday. Less than 50 buildings — including cabins — had been evacuated.

By Wednesday, officials were catching their breath.

“Right now it is in a pause mode,” Jim Grant, from the U.S. Forest Service, said of the fire. He told roughly 100 residents gathered at the Isabella Community Center that officials did not expect the fire to move much on Wednesday.

Four National Guard helicopters, two water bombers and an air attack plane from Canada were assisting fire crews from New Jersey, Montana, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and California.

Forecasters said some sleet fell briefly in the area on Wednesday, and it snowed lightly, but no measurable precipitation was in the forecast until Sunday.

“It's helping,” said Becca Manlove at the Forest Service. “It's not anywhere near a wet blanket on the fire by any means. Three days of a nice, solid rain would be nicer than that little shower.”

The blaze, called the Pagami Creek fire, is south of the area where millions of trees were toppled in a July 4, 1999, windstorm.

While the fire has grown quickly, it has done less damage than the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million as it raced across 118 square miles in Minnesota and Canada. A fire in Red Lake in 1931 consumed about 1,550 square miles and killed four people.

Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

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