Minnesota is facing a "potentially explosive" spring fire season because of lingering dry surface conditions, according to Olin Phillips, manager of the forest protection division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Speaking at an emergency managers' conference in Brooklyn Center on Thursday, Phillips said recent snows across the state will offer "some recovery." But if snowmelt is not followed by steady rains, materials on the ground surface, including downed trees from widespread windstorms in the past couple of years, will quickly dry out again and be fire-prone.

Much of the state finds almost paradoxical conditions heading into late winter. Snow cover is ample over more than two-thirds of the state, but frost and ice near the surface is likely to prevent much of the water in that snow from seeping into the soils.

Large parts of southern Minnesota received rainfall that was 6 to 10 inches below normal from June 1 to Jan. 1, and although snows have followed, those dry soils are sealed off.

Cropland endangered

Phillips said this year is also likely to see more fires in "nontraditional" fire areas, including cropland of western and southwestern Minnesota. Areas where blowdown debris remains -- around Bemidji and Itasca State Park, from a July 2 windstorm, and in the St. Croix River valley, from an August 2011 storm -- also are vulnerable.

Although the national Climate Prediction Center has indicated that Minnesota's drought conditions might improve through April, Olin said he is "not so confident."

The DNR fought 1,400 fires on 60,000 acres last year at a cost to the state of $26 million, the most in 20 years, Phillips said.

Of that sum, $6 million was spent in Kittson County, where a wildfire that blew into Karlstad destroyed 11 homes. That was one of about eight fires that burned grasslands across that region in early October; officials still are monitoring the burned areas, particularly where difficult-to-extinguish underground peat ignited.

The number of fires the DNR fought in 2012 was about average, but the acreage was twice the norm, Olin said. Even so, the acreage was less than the nearly 80,000 that the DNR dealt with in 2007.

Red River flood danger rises

Also on Thursday, officials at the conference discussed the outlook for spring flooding.

Dan Luna, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Twin Cities office, said the snowfall of more than 2 feet that hit some places on Monday and Tuesday has raised the chances of flooding in the Red River Valley, though not much along the Minnesota River.

The Mississippi River at St. Paul has a 1-in-20 chance of flooding, Luna said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646