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Betsy Holy, right, was a little amazed when she asked for sparklers and was shown the huge assortment available by the Rev. Jim Murphy in the tent outside of Marketplace Foods. Caution is advised with fireworks use this year due to dry conditions. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Dry conditions reinforce hazards of fireworks

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BEMIDJI - Fireworks may offer a new, potentially dangerous, kind of spark this year.

Dry conditions are increasing the risk of fires started by fireworks and campfires.

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Area fire officials are urging fireworks enthusiasts to be diligent in using fireworks correctly and to closely supervise the use of fire in the coming days leading up to the Fourth of July.

"Make sure you're careful with them," said Dave Hoefer, Bemidji fire chief.

It may seem as if the region has had plentiful rainfall in recent weeks, but the majority of Beltrami County remains abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest update.

There were three wildland fires reported Tuesday alone in areas near Bemidji. Two of the brush fires began as permitted burning of vegetative debris piles, but the fires escaped and spread, said Greg Vollhaber, the assistant area forester with Department of Natural Resources Forestry

"People need to be careful," he said.

Fireworks, according to the National Fire Protection Association, caused about 15,500 U.S. fires and eight civilian deaths in 2010, along with $36 million in property damage.

More fires are reported on a typical July 4 than on any other day of the year and fireworks are responsible for about half of them, according to a press release form the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division.

In Minnesota from 2001 through 2010, fireworks use in June and July led to 752 fires that caused more than $2.3 million in property damage, the State Fire Marshal Division reports.

Even legal fireworks - non-explosive and non-aerial fireworks such as sparklers, cones and tubes - carry a risk of fire because they all involve heat and fire, Vollhaber said.

"Consider this. We bake a cake at 350 degrees and won't let our children near the oven," said State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl in a release. "But a sparkler burning at 1,200 degrees - we hand that to a barefoot child and tell her to write her name in the sky. Let's take some precautions instead, and keep our kids and property safe this year."

It is quite possible, Vollhaber said, that a spark from a legal firework could start green grass ablaze.

And, what begins as a relatively small grass fire could easily spread to a large brush fire or even to a nearby structure, he noted.

"This year is abnormally dry compared to most," said Vollhaber, noting that the region is behind on rainfall for both May and June.

Explosive and aerial fireworks are illegal for public use. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill in April that would have legalized more powerful backyard fireworks.

Vollhaber said this year's dry conditions are a good example for why so many fire chiefs and fire officials spoke out against the bill.

"If you're using fireworks, take extra caution to not let them spread," he said.

Vollhaber's warnings also extended to those who plan to have campfires or burn piles. Burning is allowed by permit and campfires are legal as long as they are constantly monitored and put out in the end.

"Just because the grass is green, don't let that fool you," he said. "It's drier than people thing, drier than normal."

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