Warm weather, drought conditions heighten wildfire riskby Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio
DULUTH, Minn. — The unseasonably warm weather has many Minnesotans scurrying to dig their summer wardrobe out of storage.
But combined with drought conditions across most of the state, the record warm weather also has land managers scrambling to make early preparations for what could be a severe fire season.
Ron Stoffel, a wildfire suppression supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources, hasn't seen anything like this in over three decades of fighting wildfires in Minnesota. He doesn't like what he sees.
"For the last 35 years this is as dry as we've had it this point in the year," he said.
According to the University of Nebraska's drought monitoring system, 96 percent of Minnesota is under moderate to severe drought conditions. Much of Minnesota is running rainfall deficits of 4 to 10 inches. That has state and federal officials preparing for what is shaping up to be a busy fire season.
"Certainly this spring fire season has the potential to be a fairly severe one," said Tim Sexton, the Superior National Forest's District Ranger in Cook.
Sexton met Thursday with colleagues stationed across the forest to coordinate their efforts for the upcoming season, including District Ranger Mark Van Every from Ely. Van Every helped oversee efforts to fight the huge Pagami Creek Fire last fall, which eventually scorched over 100,000 acres, mostly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He's already gearing up for this year.
"Normally we would not be starting our fire staffing where we have people assigned to be available to respond to a fire as their primary assignment, until sometime in April, and we're starting that actually today," Sexton said. "We'll have people that are assigned to fire engines and are prepared to roll on a short notice if we get fire reports."
DNR officials also have mobilized aircraft sooner than usual. Two helicopters and an air tanker are already available, two to three weeks earlier than a typical year. With ice already melting from lakes, water scoopers will arrive several weeks early.
Spring typically is the busiest part of Minnesota's fire season, when dry grass ignites easily and fire spreads fast. It's when the DNR dusts off its Smokey Bear radio spots.
"Most wildfires occur after the snow melts, in the spring, when the vegetation is dry," the spots remind visitors.
But Stoffel said that dryness is compounded this year, because of the condition of fallen tree branches and dry grasses.
"Because of the lack of snow, most of the grass is standing straight up, so it dries out faster and the fire goes through it faster," he said. "Then you compound that with the heavy fuels that normally probably wouldn't burn at this time of year, and they're going to burn as well."
In a typical year, spring grass fires will taper off as new plants start to grow and trees bud. But Van Every, the ranger, said that may not be the case this year if there aren't significant spring rains. Without it, he says plant growth can add to fire danger.
"It can tend to pull even more moisture out of the soil, or have very limited moisture going into those green plants," he said. "So they can be more like what we would find later in the summer, and can be more flammable as a result."
A lot hinges on spring rains. DNR fire officials say if we get normal rain, every four or five days, the state will probably see a normal fire season. But until then, Tom Fastlend, coordinator at Minnesota's Interagency Fire Center, said conditions are already very fire-prone.
"Last night I happened to be at a fire department down in Aitken and they had a number of people have fires get out of control, and again, the grasses, it was never packed low," he said. "It's standing high, and it's very dry, and even without a lot of wind, fires are spreading very quickly."
The DNR plans to implement burning restrictions across much of the state beginning March 26.
Van Every said unless the forest starts getting some moisture, there's a good possibility that fire restrictions may be put into effect there too.
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