Despite welcome rain, fire danger remains high
No campfires or open burning is allowed in Crow Wing and Cass counties
That’s the advice from area firefighting professionals as fire danger remains high, even after recent storms that dropped a few inches of welcome rain in the area.
“I’ve never seen it so dry in my life,” Crosslake Fire Chief Chip Lohmiller said Friday, Aug. 20, after playing golf at Golden Eagle Golf Course in Fifty Lakes. “People have to be very careful in what they do and be smart in what they’re doing outside, even using power equipment.”
A spark from hitting a rock while cutting grass could be enough to start a grass fire, Lohmiller said.
In the past week, fire danger went from “extreme” to “high” to “moderate” in Cass and Crow Wing counties, thanks to the rainfall and a few days of lower temperatures. As of Tuesday, Aug. 24, fire danger in Crow Wing and Cass counties was “moderate,” meaning fires start easily and spread at a moderate rate. No open burning or campfires are allowed in either county.
"I’ve never seen it so dry in my life. People have to be very careful in what they do and be smart in what they’re doing outside, even using power equipment."
— Crosslake Fire Chief Chip Lohmiller
According to the National Weather Service in Duluth, central and northern Minnesota needs 9-12 inches of rain to get entirely out of the drought category.
And despite the recent rain, Curt Westerman, Backus Area DNR Forestry supervisor, said that may alleviate fire danger for a few days, but the possibility of fires rises again after just a day or two. Large fuels remain in soils that are so dry, and now leaves are dropping from trees, he said.
Pequot Lakes Fire Chief Tom Nelson said this is the first time in his 25-year career that the Department of Natural Resources has banned recreational campfires in late summer. Last week, the DNR extended burning restrictions to Cass, Crow Wing and other counties because of the worsening drought and increasing wildfire risk. The goal is to ensure public safety and protect natural resources.
Nelson said there is potential for fires like those burning in northern Minnesota to happen here.
“The vegetation, everything we have around us is so dry right now,” he said. “Ninety degrees and wind has dried things out immensely.”
For Pequot Lakes and Crosslake firefighters, grass fires haven't been excessive. Both chiefs said people realize how dry it is and are being careful.
They both said the area needs a lot more rain over several days. Heavy downpours won’t help because that water will just run off instead of soak into the ground.
"For the DNR to limit campfires is quite rare."
— Curt Westerman, Backus Area DNR Forestry supervisor
Westerman agreed the DNR’s fire restrictions that went into effect last week are extraordinary. Even during normal springtime burning restrictions, recreational campfires are still allowed.
“For the DNR to limit campfires is quite rare,” he said.
Burning has been somewhat restricted since mid-June, but campfires were allowed at residences, campgrounds and resorts because generally there are people in those locations.
“Now that conditions have continued to get further into the drought, basically all fires are difficult to suppress,” Westerman said.
He also advised people to limit activities that have the potential to start a fire, noting recent fires have resulted from equipment use, such as haying operations and roadside mowing.
“That is work they need to do, obviously,” Westerman said. “But to be prepared - whether that’s to have some water on site in case something gets hot - to do what they can after calling 911 to get the fire department and DNR enroute to perhaps be able to suppress that fire while it’s still small.”
Even a relatively small fire of a few acres could lead to structures or people being threatened on a windy day.
“It’s just so dry. On the right day it takes very little to get a fire started,” he said.
Westerman said the first wildfire in the Backus Forestry Area, which covers southern Cass and Crow Wing counties, was March 4. The fire season is pushing five and a half months with no signs of letting up.
“We have and continue to get wonderful support from local volunteer fire departments. They are in this game with us as well,” he said.
He said fire danger could linger until the area gets snow on the ground. Rain and cooler temperatures are needed, with wind a driving factor in how quickly a fire grows.
"Overall, it does seem like we’re going to see this below average period for precipitation, above average for temperatures, even for the fall."
— Justin Schultz, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth
“Without question this has been a pretty unprecedented drought across north central Minnesota,” said Justin Schultz, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth . “You’ll need repeated rounds of showers and thunderstorms, heavier thunderstorms.”
The average rainfall for the Brainerd area by this time of the year is 17.07 inches, Schultz said. As of Tuesday, Aug. 24, the area had received about 9.6 inches, meaning the lakes area was about 7.5 inches below normal for rainfall.
“That’s a pretty substantial amount,” Schultz said, noting this marks the fifth driest start to the year on record for the Brainerd area.
“Overall, it does seem like we’re going to see this below average period for precipitation, above average for temperatures, even for the fall,” he said.
While the outlook includes a few opportunities for showers and thunderstorms, there was no substantial rain in the forecast.
“It’s not likely to make a big impact in the drought,” Schultz said.
Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.