Wildfire fighters welcome winter stormby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
BEMIDJI, Minn. — A winter storm warning is in effect for northwestern Minnesota. The strong system could end up dumping rain and up to a foot of snow on parts of the region, and that's good news for crews who have been battling wildfires all this week.
Meanwhile, fire management officials report that operations in Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties have cost the state about $800,000 so far. Most crews will stay off the fire lines today as the severe weather moves through the area.
The fire that caused evacuations in Karlstad on Tuesday is only 5 percent contained. And it's burned close to 4,500 acres. The other big fire is located north of Fourtown in northern Beltrami County. That one is also considered 5 percent contained. It grew significantly over the past two days and has now involved nearly 25,000 acres.
Fire officials say the other six smaller fires are pretty much under control, and there's still some mop-up work going on with those. In all, the eight fires have burned more than 30,000 acres.
The danger appears to be over in terms of population centers threatened by the fires, such as Karlstad. The affected areas are just wild country.
The weather is changing. There was lightning this morning in Bemidji during the morning commute, but it's still 45 degrees and dry, so the big temperature drop and band of moisture is still to the west. Right now it's snowing in Roseau and Hallock, and Thief River Falls and Crookston, and that band of rain and snow stretches across the upper corner of northwest Minnesota, down to Grand Forks and Fargo-Moorhead.
This system is moving to the northeast, and is expected to dump 6 to 12 inches, with the heaviest snowfall up in the far northwest near the international border, where they could get more than a foot of snow. This system is also bringing strong winds of 20-30 mph, so it's going to affect travel as the day progresses. The winter storm warning remains in effect until 10 a.m. Friday.
Fire information officer Gil Knight said earlier this morning that the rain, snow and cold temperatures are about the best firefighters could ask for, and he expects it will be a big help in dampening the fires.
"From a firefighting standpoint, it's tough to beat rain, snow and cold temperatures. This obviously is going to be helpful," he said. "Having said that, this is also going to make for very, very dangerous working conditions throughout the area today, so safety is our number one concern."
While the weather will help to snuff some of the fires out completely, some of the fires have a peat component, and peat burns under the ground and is tougher to extinguish. Those peat fires could be burning for a long time to come. Knight says the potentially hazardous road conditions will mean there will be a big push for safety as crews are out fighting fires today.
The northwest has seen pretty significant drought conditions this year. Greg Gust at the National Weather Service in Grand Forks said this moisture will be crucial for the region. Some of these areas have only seen 2-3 inches of rain over the past 90 days. And if you look back a full 12 months, areas of the northwest are down anywhere from 5 to 8 inches below normal precipitation.
Gust says this storm is expected to produce 1 to 2 inches of liquid precipitation, which he says will be a godsend to the region. But he says he'd like to see at least twice that amount of moisture before freeze-up this winter.
If we go into the winter with a big moisture deficit, it's going to be stressful on trees and other vegetation, and it could spell trouble for farmers next spring. And of course more moisture will take the edge off of this fire danger we've been dealing with this week.
- Morning Edition, 10/04/2012, 7:20 a.m.