Spring wildfire season starts early in Minnesota
Don't let the showers of the past couple of days fool you. Spring fire season is under way in Minnesota, and it's off to an earlier start than usual.
Jean Bergerson, information officer for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, said fire danger typically starts to increase the first or second week in April. This year, she said, fires started popping up across the state a couple of weeks ago, sending fire-fighting crews scrambling to get ready.
The reason: Dry March weather and a fast snowmelt.
"We were setting records throughout the state of no snowfall in March, and that's pretty much unheard of," Bergerson said. "This is usually our time that people are coming in and getting physical refreshers done. It caught us not so much by surprise, but it's caught us trying to do many things at once."
As a result, spring burning restrictions go into effect Monday across northern Minnesota, including Beltrami, Clearwater, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, Pennington, Pope, Red Lake and Roseau counties. Burning restrictions in 25 central Minnesota counties went into effect this past Monday.
While fire risk across Minnesota was rated high as of Thursday, fire danger across North Dakota remains in the low category, according to the National Weather Service.
Big fire at AFire at Agassiz
Bergerson said the Bemidji and Park Rapids, Minn., areas were hotspots early in the week, but one of the worst fires of the season occurred Wednesday, when flames from a private burn spread to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in Marshall County.
Refuge manager Maggie Anderson said the fire burned about 300 acres of private land west of the refuge before jumping the Thief River and burning another 1,200 acres of Mattson Pool and Agassiz Pool. Despite high winds, refuge crews, using aerial guidance from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had the fire under control by late Wednesday night, Anderson said.
Bergerson said a fire investigation team has been called in to respond to the Agassiz fire.
Another fire burned 153 acres in Lake of the Woods County east of Williams, Minn., Bergerson said, and sparks from a welder started a fire north of Skime, Minn., in Roseau County that destroyed one residence and two outbuildings.
An investigation team also has been called in for that fire, she said.
As of Thursday, a total of 378 fires had burned 7,227 acres across Minnesota so far this year, according to the DNR. Of that total, 120 of those fires and 5,413 acres were in northwestern Minnesota.
Bergerson said this week's fires reflect the seriousness of the danger.
"We have had a lot of activity in that northwestern area already," she said. "Normally, this early in the season, we don't get fires that come from sparked welding and that kind of stuff. Usually, this early, our fires are either escaped pile burns or permit fires that have been held over or arson. We don't normally get equipment fires."
Patty Thielen, area forestry supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn., said this year's burning restrictions in Lake of the Woods County and other parts of northwestern Minnesota are taking effect a week to 10 days earlier than usual. Once the restrictions begin, the DNR won't issue private burning permits, she said, although some types of ag-related fires will be allowed for landowners who follow a strict list of precautions.
Dead grass, brush and twigs don't have any moisture in them right now, and "they're very lively fuels," Thielen said.
Bergerson of the Interagency Fire Center said rain in the forecast Friday will ease the situation for a few days, but the fire danger again will increase once the sun comes out and dry conditions return.
Because of that, Bergerson said burning restrictions will stay in place until green-up, which typically occurs about the third week in May, depending on the weather.
In the meantime, property owners need to follow the rules and limit their burning to campfires.
"It certainly is fine to sit around the fire at night, but keep it small. Just be watching the wind and make sure it's out," Bergerson said. "The other thing that presents problems for us is people that think, 'I can just burn one more brush pile or light the burning barrel,' and the fire hops out and gets into the grass."
If a fire does break out, property owners should call 911 rather than try to put it out themselves. Minnesota sustained its first wildfire injury of the season this week in Aitkin County, the DNR said in a news release.
"We've already had outbuildings destroyed, homes threatened and one person airlifted from burns sustained trying to put out a fire on his property," Bergerson said. "That's the other side effect we want to prevent."