Central Minnesota is seeing grass fires earlier than normal this year — and experts warn recent rain won't be enough to squelch the threat of more fires.
The first week of April is traditionally when John Korzeniowski sees wildfires picking up in central Minnesota. But Korzeniowski, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forestry office in Little Falls, Minn., has already seen 10 in his area this year.
"This period between when our snow leaves and things green up is traditionally our busiest fire time here in Minnesota — and we've got a ways to go yet before we hit green-up," Korzeniowski said.
The Stearns County Sheriff's Office responded to two grass fires Sunday: One burned approximately 7 acres just north of Cold Spring, prompting responders to close a county road due to heavy smoke, and the other burned about 1 acre just south of Holdingford. The causes of both fires are unknown.
Central Minnesota is considered abnormally dry following a dry fall and winter with below-average snowfall, while northwestern Minnesota is in a moderate drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This week, the DNR announced spring burning restrictions in several northwestern Minnesota counties, meaning the state won't issue burning permits for brush or yard waste in those counties until restrictions are lifted.
Korzeniowski said he expects burning restrictions in central Minnesota within the next week or two.
"We have a lot of grass fuels in this part of the state and they are quite flammable. It's a lot easier to light a patch of grass than it is a forest, in a lot of cases," he said. "We tend to have quick-running fires and they don't put out some of the heat like a large forest fire would Up North or in California, but they can move fast and they can catch people off guard."
The recent precipitation helps, but the moisture is quick to disappear this time of year.
"Those light fuels absorb moisture pretty easily but they also lose it pretty easily," Korzeniowski said.
Escaped debris burns are the No. 1 cause of fires in the state. While lightning strikes cause occasional wildfires, most are caused by people burning leaves or brush, and even fewer are sparked by farm equipment or other machinery.
"That's why we issue these restrictions," said Casey McCoy, DNR fire prevention supervisor, in a news release. "They really work — we've reduced wildfires by nearly a third since we started spring burning restrictions."
McCoy suggests alternatives to burning such as composting, chipping or taking brush to a collection site, especially during the months of March, April and May.
"Things like [burning] a brush pile to clean up the yard — we put those on hold," Korzeniowski said. "They'll burn in June just as well as they can burn in April."
The Little Falls region — Stearns, Benton, Sherburne, Wright, Todd, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Kanabec counties — typically sees 100 to 120 wildfires a year, Korzeniowski said. From 2015 to 2019, the state had between 600 and 1,100 wildfires annually.
The state's fire danger and burning restrictions maps are updated daily on the DNR website.
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299