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Fire risk continues with dry spring

A color-coded map of Minnesota that details on a county-by-county basis the perceived risk of fire. Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin Counties were considered 'High' risk on Sunday. Website graphic / Department of Natural Resources

Mother's Day weekend was mostly quiet in terms of wildfires—though experts are advising residents to be careful with risk factors still in effect well into the coming week.

With the low relative humidity and high temperatures—not to mention the dry foliage—north-central Minnesota has all the right factors for widespread fires, except powerful wind gusts, said William Leatham, a meteorologist based out of the National Weather Service office in Duluth.

He added there is heightened risk, even if there isn't necessarily the conditions to fuel and drive a fire to gobble up acreage quickly.Typically, it requires 25 mph winds or faster to facilitate this kind of fire activity.

"The winds have to hit a certain threshold—the fuel, like the vegetation, are very dry and relative humidity is very low, it's just the winds aren't there," Leatham said during a phone interview.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Crow Wing and Cass counties are listed as mid-level, or "high," in terms of fire danger—still concerning and warranting some precautions, though less so than the northeastern portion of the the state, which is listed as "very high," as well as the northwest corner of Minnesota going into North Dakota, which is listed as in "extreme" fire danger.

As such, the Brainerd lakes area—plus most of central and southern Minnesota—are experiencing heightened risk, but nothing at a "red" or "emergency" level, said Christi Powers, an information officer for the Minnesota Incident Command System, based out of Grand Rapids.

The far northwestern corner of the state, as well as the far northeastern sections, were subjected to fires over the weekend, she said, noting there have been multiple 5- to 10-acre fires near the North Dakota border.

"The last few weeks we've gotten pretty dry, the precipitation has unfortunately stayed well to our south—not the Twin Cities area, right along the Minnesota-Iowa border," Leatham said. "It looks like for the first half of this coming week we're going to remain pretty dry. The one good thing—despite expectations of low humidity—is that winds are expected to be lower than today (Sunday)."

In conversations with sheriff's offices in Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin counties, staffers reported to the Dispatch there were few fires, all of which were easily contained and dealt with by firefighters.

While the first half of the week looks to be largely a continuation of weather the Brainerd lakes area has been experiencing the last few days, Leatham said, the second half—especially the end of the work week into the weekend—may present welcome developments in terms of fire danger.

Leatham said there's a chance for scattered showers or possibly even thunderstorms by the end of this week—though, he added, to create the kind of greenery and tractable foliage that can counteract these tinderbox conditions, it's going to require sustained precipitation.

Leatham estimated it would take continuous, multi-day rainfall to counteract the dry, sandy conditions of the area.

Powers said the region is experiencing what's termed as a "spring dip," a phenomenon that puts an accumulation of pine cones and needles in a state akin to gasoline. Highly flammable—much like grass or small brush kindling—this natural fuel danger lies in its proximity to pine stands that can quickly turn into billowing infernos.

"Until we're into the spring green-up, where there's leaves on the trees, it's a critical time," Powers said during a phone interview. "Once a pine tree catches fire it can torch and crown, spreading from one pine tree to another in the canopy."

Leatham said he advises people to be mindful during near-critical fire conditions—which may mean postponing those plans for cookouts and bonfires until the risks are more reasonable. He also encouraged people to consult local county officials or the DNR for burn restrictions information.