Just past Prior Lake, the earth was on fire.
Flames burrowed into the dry, peaty soil of Springfield Township and smoldered for days, as fire crews hacked and dug, trying to stop the flames before they threatened lives and property.
Peat has been a source of warmth and fuel for thousands of years. But usually it has to be cut out of the earth and dried before it can burn. Minnesota's summer drought had turned the ground beneath our feet to kindling.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that 98% of the wildfires in this state are started by humans. A cigarette flicked out a car window. A pile of burning yard waste left unattended.
Small wildfires burned outside Prior Lake and Arlington in the Twin Cities metro this week. One was sparked by burning debris. The other fire's cause has not been determined, but the odds are that one of us started it.
The temperatures are dropping. October is turning cold and clammy. As tempting as it might be to light an autumn bonfire, state fire officials are hoping you will not.
"Because of how dry things were, the peat moss in these wetlands, the roots and things, were burning literally underground," said Prior Lake City Manager Jason Wedel. Fire crews battled the subterranean blaze with thermal imaging, digging toward hotspots before they could spread.
On Wednesday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for large swaths of southwestern Minnesota, as high winds whipped across tinder-dry farmland and prairie.
Now is not the time, state fire officials remind us, to burn leaves or gather around a bonfire or shoot off incendiaries at a gender reveal party. Not without checking to make sure your community still is issuing burn permits, at least.
On the dry days, when high winds whip across drought-stressed fields and forests, "pretty much any spark or ignition out of doors could cause a fire to ignite," said William Glesener, wildfire operations supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has responded to more than 550 wildfires so far this year – well below the 2,000-plus fires it battled in 2021, thanks to this year's late, soggy spring. But on Wednesday, fire officials were keeping a wary eye on counties like Cottonwood, Jackson, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone and Rock, where there wasn't enough rain in the forecast to make up for months of drought.
In the counties under red flag warnings, the state is asking residents to keep their properties clear of debris, and keep a hose handy, just in case.
"Just to make sure that if something were to happen, they could wet down the area around their house or their property," Glesener said. "But the biggest thing is to just make sure that folks are not going outside and doing any debris burning – that's still fairly common in the state of Minnesota. People like to pile up and burn leaves and brush when they're cleaning up their property in the fall."
The smell of burning leaves is one of the signature scents of autumn, but it's not a smell anyone would welcome around Prior Lake right now.
Fire crews had just smothered the peat fire in Springfield Township when word came that a barn was on fire. The humans and animals were safe, Wedel said, but Prior Lake won't be issuing burn permits for a bit.
His advice for the time being: "Don't burn things."