Fire doesn’t much like cold, and it definitely doesn’t like snow, so the Minnesota and Wisconsin wildfire seasons got off to a slow start in 2016.
But don’t count on that lasting much longer.
A few days without rain or snow and an afternoon of sunshine are all last year’s grass and leaves need to be ready to burn. Throw in a cigarette butt or a spark from a vehicle, mix in a little wind and you have a perfect recipe for wildfire.
“We thought back in March we were going to have a long fire season. But when you get snow in April, it pretty much put the brakes on that,” said Ron Stoffel, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s wildfire suppression supervisor. “But there’s a lot of fuel out there that can dry out very fast this time of year. We call them the one-hour fuels, dead grass and leaves, that can burn not long after it rains.”
Already this year there have been more than 450 wildfires in Minnesota burning more than 3,700 acres, mostly in the west and central reaches of the state, even under cold and wet conditions.
In 2015 there were 1,844 wildfires in Minnesota that burned across 73,000 acres of forest, brush, grass and swamp — part of the 10.1 million acres that burned nationally, an all-time record. It also was double Minnesota’s 984 fires in 2014, when the fire season was shortened by a long winter and late spring with lots of snow.
April and May, even with their sodden ground and soggy days, are by far the biggest month for wildfires in northern Minnesota. You don’t have to go far back to see how destructive spring fires can be:
April 2, 2015: 4,320 acres burned in Aitkin County in McGregor, destroying a hunting shack, one of 88 fires in the region in one afternoon. Winds at the Duluth airport hit 58 mph.
May 14, 2013: The Germann Road fire in southern Douglas County burned 7,442 acres, including 100 buildings, in just a few hours. It was 86 degrees and windy in Solon Springs when the fire started nearby.
May 2013: The Green Valley fire in Becker, Hubbard and Wadena counties in Minnesota burned 7,100 acres, including a dozen homes and three businesses.
May 2007: The Ham Lake fire burned 76,000 acres near the Gunflint Trail, destroying 164 buildings, including many homes.
Wherever you are, spring fire danger lingers from the time the last snow melts until trees sprout new leaves and new, green grass replaces the old dead stuff. It can start early — in early-spring years even in February or March — or, like this year, not until mid-April.
The inevitable greenup, combined with June rains, usually calms wildfire potential for a couple months until lightning storms and drier air kick the fire danger up again in August, September and October.
But every year is different. In 2013, considered another short fire season, there were 1,107 wildfires in Minnesota. In 2012, an early and warm spring, there were 2,278 fires. The modern-day record is 3,352 fires in 2003.
Most wildfires never get a chance to get big. They’re snuffed by local volunteer fire departments and fast-acting DNR crews on the ground and in the air. The DNR’s goal is to get to every wildfire within 15 minutes of the first report and then to keep that fire to 5 acres or less.
In Minnesota, 98.2 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans. Most of those, 38 percent, are small fires that escape, such as brush piles and burn barrels. Others are from errant cigarette butts, campfires, sparks from ATVs or logging equipment, trains and other vehicles.
“Most of our fires are when people start something small that gets away from them,” Stoffel said.
But some fires are set with the intent they get bigger.
Arson is the second-leading cause of wildfires in Minnesota at 20.6 percent. Last year at least 174 fires were confirmed arson cases — where people intentionally started the fires. Those arson fires burned across 4,362 acres, said Christi Powers, spokeswoman for the Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.
Only 1.8 percent of Minnesota wildfires are caused by lighting, usually in August or September.
Air, ground troops ready
Minnesota last year sold its two iconic CL-215 water bombers and instead now contracts for four Fire Boss single-engine airplanes on floats and two additional land-based, single-engine planes. They are smaller and can carry less water than the CL-215’s. But the speedy planes were credited with dozens of saves last year. Each can carry up to 800 gallons of water or fire retardant, about half the CL-215 payload.
“We were actually able to fly on more fires last year than we did before with the CL-215’s, obviously because we had more planes,” Stoffel said. “I think everyone was happy with how they worked out for us.”
The state also has eight small helicopters stationed across northern Minnesota ready to lift bag loads of water onto fires. The choppers can make fast, repeated drops from any nearby pond, lake or swamp and are very effective at calming fires down for ground troops to snuff.
If the fire season turns too hectic, the DNR can call in help from the Minnesota Air National Guard’s Blackhawk helicopters as well as the national air force of federal firefighting airplanes, if and when they are available.
According to Bob Nelson, DNR forestry logistics support coordinator, the DNR has 190 fire trucks in its firefighting fleet. Most of those engines are spread out at more than 40 DNR offices across the forested part of the state, and they are joined by dozens from U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs crews.
Those DNR stations are staffed most every day this time of year as employees who are usually working in campgrounds or forests are instead carrying shovels and water hoses and looking for smoke. While Minnesota often sends fire crews to other states to battle blazes, that’s mostly after the Minnesota woods turns green. Those smoke chasers all stay home in April and May, Stoffel noted.
Protect your property
An in-depth Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources analysis of homes, cabins and outbuildings in the path of the May 14, 2013 Germann Road fire in Douglas County showed that how far structures were away from thick woods, and driveway width, were the two biggest factors in what buildings burned and which were spared.
The fire, which started from a spark from logging equipment, destroyed 23 homes and cabins and another 81 structures in just a few hours. It was Wisconsin’s largest wildfire in 33 years.
Structures that survived the flames were, on average, 27 feet away from “unmanaged” heavy vegetation in the woods. Buildings destroyed were an average of only 19 feet from the woods. Having that little extra, often mowed-grass space around buildings was the difference.
Nearly as important as open space was how far homes and cabins were from outbuildings. While a home itself might have been 30 feet from thick vegetation, sheds, garages and even outhouses closer to the woods often ignited, eventually carrying flames to the house itself.
The Germann Road fire also showed that it’s critical that driveways be wide enough for large fire trucks to drive down and turn around as crews make hurried “triage” decisions during fires on which properties are defendable and which are unsafe for them to enter.
Not a single home or cabin was lost to the Germann Road fire where the driveway clearance was 20 feet or wider. All those destroyed had narrower driveways, and six of those destroyed had driveways narrower than 12 feet.
Even a wide driveway can be a problem, however, if trees overhang: Fire trucks can be 10, even 12 feet tall.
Other fireproofing options include adding a metal roof to prevent sparks for igniting fires, and installing a sprinkler system that can pump water out of a well, stream or lake and wet your entire yard, including the buildings. That damp area often cools the area enough to stop fires from encroaching, as well as prevent burning embers from starting fires.