As spring follows winter in Minnesota, early fire warnings follow a year with little snow and record warmth in March.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Monday issued an unusually early alert, saying conditions across the state are ripe for more frequent and more intense fires this spring, thanks to an abnormally dry winter and record-breaking temperatures this month.
“We are moving into a drought period,” said William Glesener, DNR fire specialist. “It’s going to intensify statewide.”
The little snow that’s left after last week’s record-breaking highs will likely disappear this week as temperatures hover around 40 and 50 degrees, the DNR said. That means, based on past patterns, fires are likely to be more frequent and more intense.
“We are in a period of climate change, so there is always the odd chance we could get an April snowfall that knocks everything backward,” Glesener said. “But we’re planning for an active fire season.”
While climatologists are reluctant to link one mild winter to climate change, they say Minnesota is seeing the sort of wide, frequent weather swings that scientists associate with a warming planet.
Minnesota temperatures have been running 10 to 20 degrees above normal since March 7, said Peter Boulay, a DNR climatologist. The state has only seen a high of 70 in March, which the Twin Cities hit Sunday, three other times in its history, he said.
“What’s making the difference this March is the rapid warm-up we had,” he said.
Precipitation, on the other hand, has run well below normal since October. Most areas of Minnesota are 2 or 3 inches below average, and would need 3 to 6 inches of rain in April to get back to an average spring level, Glesener said.
Minnesota isn’t alone. The western states have been in a severe drought for some time, and now drought conditions are expected to hit much of the Midwest as well, thanks to the dry winter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“From Minnesota to Missouri and southeast will have a pretty good fire season this year,” Glesener said.
Last winter, in contrast, was one of the coldest and wettest on record, with a late spring and overflowing rivers and creeks when the snow finally melted.
But such year-to-year — and even month-to-month — flip-flops are on the rise, said Glesener. A dry, early spring and early fire warnings used to happen once every 10 years or so, he said. Now, they occur more often — alternating with extremes on the other end of the weather spectrum.
Southern Minnesota, for example, has had three 1,000-year floods in the past nine years.
“There is a lot of scientific evidence saying that climate change is causing more extremes,” said Glesener. Beyond swings in temperature, that means really wet or really dry weather, he said. This year is shaping up to look a lot like 2011 — a dry year with a lot of fires, he said.
That could all change with a weather shift in the coming months, Boulay said. But plants and trees are already short of the snowmelt they need to green up, and they will need spring rains to stay green.
If it doesn’t rain, vegetation will dry out and provide ample fuel for fires, Glesener said.
“Without snow, we are starting with a severe deficit,” he said.