Dry landscape is raising fears of a fiery spring

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2012 - 11:06 PM

Last year's lush grasses and downed timber are fuel.

Dry foliage, dry soil, a dry atmosphere and a dry long-term weather outlook have fire officials in Minnesota bracing for what could be a dangerous fire season in the coming weeks.

"It all adds up to the possibility of increased activity this spring," said Doug Miedtke, fire management specialist for the Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Without significant snow cover across much of the state, the Department of Natural Resources this week began requiring permits for open burning in all but about the northern fourth of Minnesota -- a "very unusual" situation for early February, Miedtke said. Permits generally aren't required where there is at least 3 inches of snow on the ground.

In east-central Minnesota, enough timber from a pair of July windstorms still lies on the ground -- even after continuing auctions to loggers -- that public agencies are hiring additional firefighters, lining up additional heavy equipment and even extending a helicopter contract.

"The blowdown itself really raises the fire danger. But the extraordinarily dry conditions we have now just amplify that," said Jeremy Fauskee, supervisor in the Department of Natural Resources' regional forestry office in Sandstone. The storms virtually wiped out forest cover on nearly 30,000 acres of state forest and state park land, including parts of St. Croix State Park. Damage was spread over about 185,000 acres of public and private land -- about 289 square miles.

Elsewhere, grasses usually matted by snow are standing tall, possibly allowing fire to spread through them more quickly than in a normal spring, Miedtke noted.

About a foot of snow now rests in much of the Superior National Forest, where a lightning-sparked fire in August later blew into the largest wildfire in Minnesota in 93 years. That's about as deep as the snow gets in Minnesota right now, but Ranger Mark Van Every said it doesn't have much moisture in it.

"Things are extremely dry," he said Wednesday. "It looked like a late summer dust cloud as I was driving down the road. If we don't see more precipitation -- snow or rain -- we're definitely going to have an early and active fire season." U.S. Forest Service officials may ask for a funding boost and call in seasonal crews early to cover possible spring firefighting, Van Every said.

Widespread drought

All but the extreme southeast corner of Minnesota is experiencing some degree of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In south-central and southwest Minnesota, as well as in the Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota, the drought is labeled "severe." From Aug. 1 through Monday, precipitation at Waseca has been about one-third normal. At Marshall, rain and snow were about 15 percent of normal.

Through last week, more than half the state had less than an inch of snow on the ground, according to the Minnesota DNR climatology office. In the Twin Cities, the official depth dropped back to zero on Friday.

There's not much encouragement ahead. A wintry storm track has continued to run across Canada instead of the northern U.S., and dry conditions in an area such as Minnesota -- far from maritime sources of moisture -- can often be self-perpetuating, said Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Last spring's plentiful rains, Miedtke added, generated rich ground cover around much of the state, but after seven months of drought that grass is now a prime wildfire fuel. In northwest Minnesota, he said, ground fires last fall penetrated into dry peat below the surface and continued to burn through December.

Lack of snow has allowed frost to harden deep in soils across the state, Miedtke said, even with unusually warm weather. That means early rain, or a thaw of snow that might fall, may run off the surface without replenishing soils.

Tom Hoverstad, scientist at the University of Minnesota's Southern Research and Outreach Center, said the outlook for agriculture isn't at all grim -- yet. Soil moisture at Waseca was about half of what's normal in November, when the moisture usually freezes. That means soils could be dry enough for early planting, and they may be able to absorb snowmelt and rain rather than just shed it, Hoverstad said.

Area farmers, he said, are wondering whether they should plant corn less densely than normal so the crop can draw enough moisture from the soil. "I'm answering 'No, plant corn the way you always do, and hope you get the best crop you've ever had,'" he said. "I think we can do that.

"But if we're still running well below normal June 1, then I'll start getting nervous."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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