July 4 BWCAW Blowdown

Today the Attic offers the second installment of two significant Northland events that marked their 10-year anniversaries this week.

On July 4, 1999, Mother Nature sent a furious wind strom through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildnerness. Winds reportedly reached 100 mph in places over a 30-mile-wide stretch of the BWCAW. Millions of trees were toppled. Several canoers were stranded or injured, including 14 who needed to be airlifted from the devastated wilderness.

News Tribune staffers patched together a sketchy report from U.S. Forest Service news releases and phone calls to the area. The story only scratched the surface of the true impact of the storm.

Thunderstorm Hammers Region, injures at least four, authorities say

News Tribune

A strong storm roared across northern Minnesota Sunday, breaking trees, causing power outages, leading to a tornado warning in northern Wisconsin, and injuring at least four campers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“People have been reporting trees over tents,’ said Bob Behrner, who was working in the U.S. Forest Service’s dispatch office in Grand Rapids Sunday evening. “We have a spinal injury about eight miles west of the end of the Gunflint Trail. We’re working to get some people out to that.
“We just got a report a few minutes ago of a person with two broken legs just west of Seagull on Alpine Lake,’ he said. “So we’re sending an airplane into that.
“And right now we have an aircraft in Lake Polly, which is 30 miles east of Ely,’ he said. “We don’t known the nature of those injuries.’
Earlier in the day, an injured person was airlifted from the Brule Lake area. Behrner said he didn’t know how badly that person was hurt or what sort of injuries he or she suffered.
“That’s all I’m aware of so far,’ he said of the four injuries.
The count, however, could go higher as people come out of the BWCAW.
Sunday’s storm packed winds up to 80 mph, and blew so many trees down that part of the Gunflint Trail was blocked.
The Minnesota State Patrol and Department of Transportation advised people to stay off Minnesota Highway 1 between Ely and Isabella until work crews finished clearing the road.
The storm also delayed Ely’s Fourth of July parade an hour and reportedly flipped a semi-trailer onto its side in Canyon.
“There was a lot of wind damage — trees and power lines down,’ said Jim Christenson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. “That’s the common thing.’
In addition to high winds, the storm brought heavy rain, hail and unconfirmed reports of funnel clouds near Longville, Caribou Lake north of Duluth and Markham.
"This whole thing started early this morning coming out of the Fargo area of North Dakota and swept across northern Minnesota," Christenson said.
A storm packing wind gusts of more than 90 mph hit Fargo and West Fargo at about 7:30 a.m., tearing roofs from buildings, flipping airplanes and leaving thousands of residents without power. As many as 10,000 people remained without electricity Sunday afternoon, authorities said.
By 10 a.m., the storm hit Walker, Minn., with 70 mph winds, knocking down power lines. Forty-five minutes later, 1 1/2-inch hail fell on Blackberry, a small community southeast of Grand Rapids.
Hibbing received 80 mph winds and rains that flooded some streets around noon, but the storm caused no major damage, Hibbing Police said.
By evening, the Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Bayfield and Ashland counties. Weather Service meterologists spotted a developing tornado, but at press time no tornado was reported to have touched down.
Jane MacDougall of Duluth was driving on St. Louis County Highway 4 north of Island Lake when the storm hit. Trees were falling everywhere through an approximately 2-mile stretch hit hardest by the storm.
"Dozens of trees," MacDougall said. "I’d say anywhere from 30- to 50-foot pine trees. It looked like something just dug them out from the woods."
Christenson said the storm actually died down a little as it entered St. Louis County, then picked up strength and moved off through the Arrowhead.
Bill Schultz was fishing near Markham shortly before the storm hit.
"It kept rumbling and rumbling," he said. "We got to the house at 1 and by 1:10 everything broke loose. The treetops were touching the ground.
The wind blew Schult’z picnic table into the garden. His neighbor had several trees blown down.

Official statements and eyewitness accounts in the following days detailed a far worse situation.

14 injured campers airlifted from BWCAW as search continues

News Tribune

The search for injured campers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness continues today after rescue workers evacuated 14 who were hurt during Sunday’s storms.
“Our employees are out checking on a lake-by-lake, campsite-by-campsite basis to make sure people are OK,’ said Superior National Forest spokesman Mark Van Every. “That’s going to take some time — a lot of portages are clogged with downed trees.’
Injured by falling trees and branches, the victims were airlifted from the BWCAW Sunday and Monday. While details on the severity of their injuries are sketchy, at least several had broken bones, authorities said. One reportedly had more serious internal injuries and another had a spinal injury.
There were no reports of deaths from Sunday’s storms, which raked Fargo, N.D., before sweeping across northern Minnesota. Two years ago, lightning from a similar storm killed a Boy Scout leader and injured another on Newfound Lake.
To speed the search in the BWCAW, the Civil Air Patrol began flying search missions Monday. Air Patrol spotters who find campers signaling for help then radio the Forest Service to send in one of the two float planes available for rescues.
“My concern is for everybody who doesn’t have road access, everyone who is in the Boundary Waters,’ said Cook County Sheriff David Wirt. “If the portages are blocked, then these people can’t get out. If they are injured and they can’t move, we need the air show.’
An incident team met in Ely Monday evening to plan today’s reconnaissance and rescue efforts.
Sunday’s storm, packing winds in excess of 80 mph, knocked down numerous trees in a swathe four to five miles wide and 30 to 35 miles long starting in the Moose Lake area and going up to Alpine Lake just west of Seagull Lake.
“There were also other areas hit along the Gunflint Trail and Sawbill Trail farther south,’ Van Every said. “A couple of our campgrounds are closed and we are in the process of helping people get out. The East Bearskin and Flower Lake Campground were both hit pretty hard.’
Fallen trees closed the Gunflint Trail Sunday, and hit resorts and campgrounds along the trail. Phone contact along the trail was spotty Monday.
It’s too early to tell if the Forest Service will have to close any of the entry points to the popular canoe country, officials said.
“Many of those areas are going to be affected for a while,’ Van Every said. “It’s not something we are going to be able to clean up in a short period of time.’
While the Forest Service’s first priority is finding everyone needing help, Van Every said, “We’re working toward what is the best approach to getting those portages opened as quickly as possible, because it’s going to prevent people in the wilderness from getting out.’
The Forest Service had no information Monday on the number of people who were in the BWCAW over the holiday weekend.

The aerial photo, taken in April of the following year shows a portion of the area most damaged by the storm. Beyond the initial shock of the storm’s devastation, the threat of massive fires caused by the fallen trees worried forestry officials for years to come.

Read this July 8 News Tribune account of two Duluth campers caught in the thick of the storm.

Duluthians survived ‘quiet destruction’ of vicious wind storm

News Tribune

Early Sunday afternoon, Duluthians Glenn Kreag, Barb Koth and their dog, Abby, stopped for lunch after crossing five portages to reach the shore of one of the Kekekabic Ponds in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
It started to rain, and the sky turned greenish-yellow to the west. So the two campers propped their 17-foot canoe in a tree, crouched under it and ate peanut butter sandwiches and sardines.
“We were admiring the fury of it,’ Kreag said of the storm that whipped the water into a white froth.
All of a sudden, the wind grabbed the canoe and tossed it backward. Instinctively, Kreag held it down, fearing it would be lost in the rapidly accelerating winds.
Then they heard a cracking sound from the red pine that moments earlier had been a canoe prop.
“The tree is coming down,’ said Koth.
The tree hit the canoe, with Kreag under it, and threw both to the ground. Neither was hurt.
But the worst was yet to come.
“We have to get out of here!’ Kreag shouted, and both began to run, but in different directions.
Kreag, a 55-year-old extension educator for the University of Minnesota, spotted the root ball of a large, freshly uprooted tree.
At the same time, Koth scrambled into an open spot, but found no safety there. “I felt like I wasn’t going to stay on the ground . . . like possibly I was going to be lifted,’ she said of the winds.
Crouching under the root ball, Kreag shouted to Koth to join him. She dashed to the tree barefoot, having shed her shoes during lunch, and crawled beneath the roots. Abby, the 6-year-old black lab and greyhound mix, joined them.
For the next 20 minutes or so, they and their dog watched as trees bent nearly to the ground, then snapped. It was a quiet sort of destruction, not what they would have imagined.
“It was not like it was huge crashing,’ Kreag said of the trees. “There was noise from the storm, but the trees bent over and over and over until they gave up. You could just see them going down.’
When it was over, the landscape had changed. Before the straight-line winds hit, Kreag and Koth stood in a majestic forest of pines, a classic canoe-country scene.
The aftermath reminded Koth, who once lived in Washington state, of the rows of downed trees after the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.
“It was so orderly and at the same time it was utter chaos,’ said Koth, a planner for the National Scenic Byways Resource Center. “I can see why they call them straight-line winds. It is picture-perfect straight-line trees all down in one direction.’


This photo from the U.S. Forest Service brings you up close with the storm’s power.

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