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Cottonwood fluff poses unprecedented fire danger

Nisswa fire chief says it burns faster than gasoline.

Fire trucks on road
A grass fire rig on Clark Lake Road outside of Nisswa fights a grass fire fed by ample white cottonwood fluff on June 9, 2022.
Kelly Humphrey
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After approximately 18 acres went up in smoke at a grass fire Thursday, June 9, on South Clark Lake Road, Nisswa Fire Chief Shawn Bailey is warning anyone who will listen: "Don't light the white."

This comes after Bailey has witnessed this and other area grass fires where the flames spread faster than usual thanks to the thick coating of cottonwood fluff that has blanketed the area for weeks now.

"That cotton stuff is more flammable than gasoline," Bailey said. "I've never seen or experienced anything like it. You could be standing right next to the fire and the next thing you know it's gone 50 feet, then it holds up, then it catches the next batch and goes another 100 feet."

clark-lake-road-grass-fire-1.jpg
Fire crews work to contain a large grass fire spreading through cottonwood seed fluff outside of Nisswa on June 9, 2022.
Kelly Humphrey

Bailey believes the fluff was a contributing factor to a destructive fire Saturday, June 11, off County Road 137 that damaged siding on a house and destroyed a shed. That same structure fire threatened yet another house, but did not appear to cause any damage.

These flammable balls of fluff are fruit capsules full of seed that float in the wind until they settle to the ground where a cottonwood tree, a type of poplar or aspen tree, could possibly grow. Unlike 2021, most of the area has greened up already, prompting the removal of official burning restrictions. But this cotton is creating an unfamiliar fire hazard other area fire chiefs noted.

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"I think all the other (grass fires) we've had up until now have been contributed to by the cotton," said Pequot Lakes Fire Chief Tom Nelson. "We had a couple of our own and a couple mutual aids with Nisswa."

Nelson said the largest cotton fed grass fire in his district ran 200 yards along a roadway, but only about 10 feet wide. In that case, wet grass stopped the fire from spreading into nearby woodlands. As with Bailey, Nelson has never seen such a thing.

"I've had my own lawn business for 22 years and I can say I've never seen the cotton this thick or a season this long," Nelson said. "I've also been on a fire department for 26 years and I can't think of any other year where the cotton has been kind of a main factor in spreading fires."

Ideal Fire Department Assistant Chief Craig Wallace compared the cotton fluff to gasoline as well.

"You can physically see the fire running through the woods," Wallace said. "It's just hot enough to set the leaves, pine needles and trees on fire. I've never seen that before."

He and his crew responded to a fire Wednesday, June 8, down Butternut Point Road in Ideal Township. He said the green grass outside combined with lack of wind made him think it would be an easy job putting out the fire when he first got the call.

"I was going down and I saw the smoke," Wallace said. "It immediately popped into my head that it might be the cotton."

The fire started when the hot exhaust on a lawnmower got too close to a large pile of cotton and began rapidly spreading throughout the yard and surrounding woods. The fire virtually surrounded the house, caught two large wood piles on fire and spread throughout the surrounding woods, threatening the house on the main property as well as two other houses and garages on neighboring properties.

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Pequot Lakes, Crosslake and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources responded to the fire as well. The four crews together fought the fire for two hours. Three acres burned but one simple factor saved the house.

"One of the big reasons we were able to save the house was because of their spring cleanup," Wallace said. "They raked up the leaves and pine needles that the cotton was sticking to, so there was a big perimeter of fire around the house anywhere from 10-20 feet away all around the house."

Nelson and his crew most recently fought a fire Sunday, June 12, in Breezy Point when a bonfire on North Lakeview Drive got away from the person monitoring it. In this situation, the fire was not fed by the cottonwood seeds. Instead, it burned a section of the property owner's yard before catching some dock sections on fire.

The fire burned about a 20- by 20-foot area, but did not result in injuries or structure damage.

Though spring started off with rains that helped with an early green up, currently dry weather and winds have led to a return of dry conditions.

"Up until now, even through Memorial Day, we had quite a bit of rain, Nelson said. "With the wind and sunshine that we've been having, we are getting into a dry stage. I take care of the grounds here at the school, so I know they have some spots that even with irrigation are starting to dry out already."

Bailey said between the dry conditions and the cotton, he wouldn't take a risk of lighting a campfire right now, much less a larger fire.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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