Wildfire season in Minnesota has gotten off to an early start, and a national forecasting group projects that fire danger will be heightened in the state through at least April.

Seasonal outlooks released Friday by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) showed an above average wildfire risk for all of Minnesota in March and April. The area of concern extends over much of the upper Midwest, covering most of Wisconsin, half the Upper Peninsula, northern Iowa and much of the Dakotas.

A historically warm winter and persistent drought fueled the risk. "Temperatures were well above normal across the central and northern Plains into the Midwest for February, with the most extreme anomalies of greater than 15 degrees above normal over portions of North Dakota and Minnesota," according to the forecast discussion.

Fires have already been breaking out in Minnesota since mid-February, about six weeks before normal, said Karen Harrison, statewide wildfire prevention specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

"We are experiencing, right now, moderate to very high fire danger in two-thirds of the state," she said.

It's not the first time that fires have started igniting this early — it started about the same time in 2012, Harrison said. Spring is the state's most active wildfire season, because of the risk that dry vegetation will ignite before new plant growth emerges.

But this year has been different. The winter of 2023-24 is the warmest since weather records began, with the period from December through February the hottest at almost all Minnesota temperature stations, according to the DNR.

Snow depth had also remained at either a record or near-record low for most locations, according to the Star Tribune's snowfall tracker. That's a major problem, because dead grasses haven't been pushed to ground level by snowpack, where they would be more likely to stay cooler and wetter, Harrison said.

Crispy standing grasses can more easily turn into tinder, she said.

Over the next few days, potential fire conditions will be worst on Sunday, Harrison said. Forecast highs could top 70 degrees in parts of southern Minnesota, according to the National Weather Service.

A forecast from the Eastern Area Coordination Center (EACC), an interagency wildfire group that covers the Great Lakes region, shows a high risk of fires in a large swath of southwest and central Minnesota on Sunday. The area stretches from south of Moorhead to just west of Rochester, and south to the state line. Windy conditions are the main risk factor.

All together, conditions have put fire suppression officials on high alert, Harrison said.

It's not a given that the situation will persist through the summer. The El Niño weather pattern that has helped boost the warm winter is weakening, and may be replaced by a cooler La Niña pattern by early summer, according to the NIFC fire forecast.

Last summer's fire season was remarkable not for the blazes in Minnesota itself, but for repeated waves of smoke from Canadian wildfires. State officials issued a record 20 alerts for poor air quality, covering 52 days, by mid-September.

Some fires are still burning in Canada now. The first fire season forecast from Natural Resources Canada was scheduled for Friday, but it was delayed due to technical issues, according to an agency spokesman.

Much bigger fires are burning elsewhere in the United States. The Smokehouse Creek fire in the Texas panhandle has killed two people and left a desolate landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and burned-out homes. The largest of several major fires burning in the area, it has crossed into Oklahoma.

The blaze stayed about the same size Friday, just shy of 1,700 square miles. It merged with another fire and is 5% contained, up from 3% Thursday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Conditions will worsen through the weekend in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico, according to the National Weather Service. Strong winds, relatively low humidity and dry conditions are creating conditions that the weather service warned caused "a significant threat for the rapid spread of wildfires."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.