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Dry conditions leave area at risk for grass fires

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Prolonged winter weather didn’t prevent a grass and wildfire season, it just shortened it.

Burning restrictions in the lakes area took effect Monday, May 6, and fire crews were busy Monday and Tuesday.

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“Conditions have been out of the ordinary but the snow has disappeared and the fine fuels — the grasses and leaves and so forth — are dry,” said Mark Mortensen, DNR fire program forester in Brainerd.

A sunny day with a bit of wind could ignite and carry fires, he said. The area needs rain, warm temperatures and sunshine so those dry leaves and grasses green up.

With burning restrictions in place, only forestry offices will issue burning permits on a case-by-case basis. An urgent need must be demonstrated, such as a construction project or agricultural burn that must be completed.

The DNR and area fire departments have been busy battling grass fires. Last week, a fire north of Motley burned 25 acres, and fires ignited south of Brainerd, north of Brainerd and in Nisswa.

Pequot Lakes firefighters were called to a grass fire Tuesday, May 7, and on Monday, May 6, several grass fires occurred around the same time — west of Jenkins, west of Pequot Lakes, near the Wadena County line and near Leader. The fire west of Pequot Lakes was 18 acres in size.

About 20 DNR foresters worked to extinguish Monday’s grass fires, and firefighters from the Pequot Lakes and Nisswa fire departments assisted with the fires in Pequot Lakes and Jenkins.

A helicopter dropped water on the fire in Jenkins, though still-frozen lakes were causing problems in fighting some of the fires.

“We have no water available at this point for use of the CL-215 air tankers,” Mortensen said last week, noting there were no large enough openings of water for the water scoopers.

There were limited areas where helicopters could dip the water with a bucket, he said.

Nisswa firefighters battled a grass fire last Tuesday, April 30, on private property just north of Nisswa Marine off Highway 371 that burned two to three acres. The property owners were burning the day before and thought the fire was extinguished, Nisswa Fire Chief Richard Geike said, noting the windy conditions reignited the pile.

“It’s dry right now. People are going to have to be careful. I just can’t tell people to be careful enough,” Geike said.

He said Friday, May 3, that a firefighter driving down the road that morning saw a pile of leaves smoking, most likely from being burned the night before.

“That kind of stuff’s going to get us,” he said. “They have to make double sure that fire’s out. The only way to do that is to keep wetting it down and stirring it up. If you just pour water over the top and don’t stir, anything in the middle is still burning.”

Pequot Lakes Fire Chief Tom Nelson said residents shouldn’t get a false sense of security from the snowmelt.

“Some people get fooled because the ground may be wet, but grass that’s standing is dry,” he said. “Grass, anything like that, dries up fast and it doesn’t take long to get that stuff burning.”

Nelson cautioned people who burned big piles over the winter that those embers stay hot for a long time. A windy day can stir up those ashes and get fires going again, he said, especially with the lack of rain.

“If you burned three months ago there a good chance it’s still hot underneath,” Nelson said.

Mortensen urged residents to be aware that the area does have conditions that would allow a fire to burn and spread. So if anyone is outside working with equipment or burning a campfire, be cautious and aware of the conditions.

“And make sure the fire is completely extinguished before you leave,” Mortensen said.

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