Dry spring has northern Minn. on high alert for wildfiresby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Ely, Minn. — Weekend rains have helped alleviate the immediate fire danger in northern Minnesota, but fire officials say much more rain is needed to overcome a long dry spell that reminds some people of moisture levels not seen in decades.
Without continued rain, they say, the fire season could be the worst since 1976 -- a notorious year for wildfires.
Outside of Hibbing, a small army of yellow-shirted firefighters is attacking yet another northern Minnesota wildfire -- this one a 35-acre blaze that exploded in grass and trees last Wednesday afternoon.
Chisholm volunteer fire Capt. Larry Pervenanze is out of breath, dragging the heavy hose back to his wildland fire truck.
"I think we've pretty much got it under control now," he said.
Overhead, a helicopter slings a bucket of water to dark smoke pouring out of woods maybe 50 yards away. A huge red and white, four-engine airplane appears just over tree level, streaming a rust-red cloud of chemical fire retardant.
Firefighters are hammering wildfires from the air to stop flames from charging through tinder dry grass and brush, where they can develop into major fires with alarming speed.
The fire danger in Minnesota is so great, the state has assembled an array of weapons to fight blazes, including two big tankers that drop fire retardant, three CL-215 water bombers, two single-engine "Fire Boss" water drop planes and 15 helicopters.
Dennis Danzl's job is to choreograph the attack from a separate light aircraft. He's working with an unusually large air force.
"It's unusual just to have the retardant aircraft in the state at all, but to have this many fixed-wing and this many helicopters, that's a sign of how dry it really is," Danzl said.
It's too early to know what the firefight will cost, but clearly it's not over.
Officially, the regional drought level ranges from moderate in the north, to severe in parts of the northeast. They measure drought by things like stream and lake levels.
But there's another measure that's more concerning right now: the lack of moisture in dead grass and downed wood is worse than most fire officials have seen here in years.
"I started my career back in '76 which was a really a bad fire year, and a lot of people are comparing it to '76 or even saying it's worse," Danzl said.
In the Superior National Forest, officials say moisture levels are now lower than during the 2007 Ham Lake fire which destroyed more than 60 homes, and the 2006 Cavity Lake fire that consumed nearly 32,000 acres.
You can hear the dryness in the crunchy grassy areas just a few feet from Forest Service District Headquarters in Ely.
Joanne Hakala is the Forest Service's Ely District Fire Management Officer.
"We're standing in a patch of some dried, cured grasses down here," she said. "This is the stuff that's going to start and spread more rapidly, that we're looking at as being a high fire danger."
In a normal spring, this grassy stuff is pretty much the fire threat. But this year, she says, even the bigger fuels like sticks and dead trees are dry, producing a moisture rating more typical of late summer.
"It's a number figure, but it's a 14 that we're down to in the Ely area, and it's real low for this time of the year," Hakala says. "We haven't seen that since probably back in 1976."
State officials have placed burning restrictions in 37 counties, on things like open fires. The Forest Service have put similar restrictions in place in the state's two national forests, and has also closed one long-distance hiking trail.
Burning restrictions have been lifted now in Voyageurs National Park because that region got about an inch of rain over the weekend. But other locations recorded much less than that.
Hakala says if things don't change, additional restrictions could include a ban on outdoor smoking, possibly even restrictions on logging.
The dry conditions also make it more likely that lightening could start fires, something that's usually not a problem until summer. However, most fires are started by people, Ely District Ranger Mark Van Every says.
"I think it's essential that people recognize the seriousness of the situation -- what the risk is and how easily a fire can start," Van Every said.
Weekend rains were encouraging but light. The forecast brings a few more opportunities for showers this week.
But fire officials say it will take much more than that -- repeated rains week after week -- to avoid a long dry summer the likes of which Minnesota hasn't seen in 34 years.
- All Things Considered, 05/03/2010, 5:43 p.m.