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DNR ready for Minnesota wildfire season if warm, dry conditions continue

An area of the Pagami Creek wildfire shows active burning in this aerial photograph on the afternoon of Tuesday Sept. 13, 2011 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. Forum News Service file photo

It's been an average start to the Minnesota wildfire season so far but a trend to warmer, drier weather in recent months has firefighting officials on the alert.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last Thursday said it was ready to do battle on land and in the air, noting last year's dead grass and leaves are ready to burn.

"Fuels" like grass and leaves can dry out in just an hour of sun and wind, and with moisture in northern conifer needles now at its seasonal low, small fires can grow into big ones fast.

Minnesota's statewide temperatures are running more than 6 degrees above normal for April, DNR officials said Thursday, and the state on average is nearly a half-inch below normal for rain. The DNR has ground crews now at the ready at dozens of forestry offices across the state and 11 water-dropping helicopters and 8 water-bombing airplanes stationed at multiple airports. Contract aircraft now are flying grids nearly every day, with trained pilots ready to spot any smoke and dispatch crews quickly.

Other agencies also are ready to roll and fly on fires — from local volunteer fire departments to the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service all with personnel and resources available across the northern third of the state.

Some 98 percent Minnesota's wildfires are caused by humans. Officials urged caution by anyone burning brush or debris piles, which in some cases are not allowed. In addition to debris fires, dryer conditions can see fires caused by careless smokers, train sparks and even small engines such as ATVs or chainsaws.

"We're approaching that kind of dryness now in the northern part of the state where equipment can cause a fire," said Ron Stoffel, the DNR's wildfire suppression manager.

Officials also urged people not to try to fight wildfires once they start, noting several people have been injured in recent years. Get out of danger and call 911, they noted, and let wildfire crews do the job. One man recently suffered severe burns attempting to put out a wildfire that spread after his lawnmower caught fire.

Fire officials also urged people not to fly drones anywhere near a wildfire because of the chances of collision with low-flying fire suppression aircraft. If a drone is spotted, fire aircraft are pulled out of the area, allowing the fire to spread.

Minnesota by far sees its most wildfires in April and May, before new green growth emerges among grass, bushes and trees. The worst wildfire days are warm and windy, but any extended period without rain can see fires increase.

There were 387 fires reported through Wednesday across the state so far this year, burning across 1,087 acres, mostly grass and brush. So far those fires have been, small, usually snuffed by crews when they are just a few acres in size, said Paul Lundgren, the DNR's wildfire section manager.

Nationally 2017 has been a hot one so far, with 13,458 wildfires reported, up 46 percent from this time last year.

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