Near-critical fire weather conditions and red flag warnings are not usually part of Minnesota’s July forecasts, but this year is anything but ordinary.
“It is rare,” said Greg Thomas, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, during a phone interview Sunday, July 25. “By the time we get to the end of July, we’ve had enough rain and soil moisture is usually fairly high this time of year. … Because it’s so dry and we haven’t had much rain this season and it’s been hot, everything is coming together to extend the fire season into the summer.”
Low relative humidities combined with very dry and windy conditions prompted the weather service to issue a red flag warning for northeastern Minnesota Sunday, including northern Aitkin County. Much of the rest of the northern half of the state was also ripe for fire weather conditions throughout the weekend.
As of Sunday, rainfall recorded at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport — including a half-inch during the early morning thunderstorm Saturday — sat at 1.55 inches for the month of July. Normally by this point in the month, the area sees an average of 3.69 inches. Last year, a much wetter summer brought a total of 6.27 inches recorded in July.
For the year to date, the Brainerd area received a total of 7.69 inches of precipitation. This is almost half of normal, which is 14.39 inches, and so far, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth driest year on record for the Brainerd area. The weather service reported only the years of 1906, 2006 and 1936 were drier — the latter of which occurred during the Dust Bowl era.
Dry vegetation and unusually low water levels in lakes, rivers and streams are a visual reminder of the drought conditions plaguing the region. Soil moisture in the Brainerd area currently is 10-15%, a notably low measure, and the weather service issued a low flow forecast for the Mississippi River in Brainerd. This means the amount of water moving through the river is below 1,000 cubic feet per second.
In fact, the flow was measured at nearly half that, with 524 cubic feet per second the latest reading on Sunday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The lowest recorded in the last 34 years was 405 cubic feet in 1988. Average flow is 3,720 cubic feet per second.
Heat has accompanied the dry weather in a big way this year. According to the weather service’s almanac, a total of 32 days of the 84 since May 1 saw temperatures in the Brainerd area meet or exceed 85 degrees, and 14 of those exceeded 90 degrees. That’s nearly 40% of the days over the past almost three months.
So how does the state get out of this dry pattern?
“We would need to have a few more storm systems move through the area to help set off some thunderstorms and dump some decent rain on us,” Thomas said. “But for most of the summer we’ve been under high pressure, which means fewer clouds and it’s dryer with more sun. This equates to hotter temperatures.”
The forecast shows late afternoon or early evening Monday will likely be the best chance for some rain. There’s a slight risk for severe thunderstorms and the chance for precipitation increases from 15-20% in the morning to 60% by evening.
Thomas noted there’s also a marginal risk of severe storms Tuesday, although models are still mixed and the chance appears to be diminishing. Wednesday also brings a chance of thunderstorms before 7 p.m. before that chance dissipates through the rest of the night.
Monday could see a high of 90 degrees with 87 and 93 expected for Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Thursday may be slightly cooler at 83, but that’s the lowest high on the forecast for the upcoming week.