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Little snow leads to drought and wildfires

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Despite the thin layer of snow on the ground and the expectation of more this weekend, the Brainerd lakes area has fallen into a drought.

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So little accumulation has fallen since September that area firefighters have been called to grass fires in January and February, a rarity according to Mark Mortensen, DNR program forester in Brainerd.

“This is not something we typically see,” Mortensen said. “Many times I’ve seen grass fires start in February but I have never personally been involved in one in January. That’s the one month out of year I personally haven’t worked on wild fire.”

Mortensen said from September through January, Brainerd is 70 percent below the average for precipitation. Because of the deficit, the DNR is requiring burning permits.

“Which, again, is pretty unusual for this time of year but conditions are such that we do want people aware that there is a possibility of fire spreading,” Mortensen said. The danger, he said, has been peat igniting in low lands and swamps.

Because of the danger, the DNR has equipment available that normally would be in storage. The equipment will probably remain ready to go through spring, he said, because of the high potential for wildfire activity this spring.

“If we do get more snow it could put it off for a while but unless we get a lot of precipitation we are going to have a very active fire spring,” Mortensen said.

Ron Stoffel, DNR wild fire suppression supervisor with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, also is expecting more fire activity this spring.

“It all depends on what happens. If we get timely rain, such as rain every four or five days, we can limp through it without having a lot of activity. But if it goes longer it sets itself up, really,” Stoffel said.

“We’re still way behind on moisture overall and anything we’d pick up now, unless we got a lot of snow, we’d still be going into spring was behind on moisture. Unless we get heavy snow we’re going we’ll continue to have fire problems all the way to green up.”

The opposite proved true in 2011, Stoffel noted. Wildfires were at a 25- to 30-year low, he estimated with only about 500 such fires reported in the state. Normally there’s 1,400-1,500 wildfires each year.

“Then it just quit raining in July,” he said.

Rick Hluchan, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, said precipitation has been getting worse as the winter moves along.

According to the U.S. drought monitor more than two-thirds of Minnesota, including Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties, is in moderate drought. Areas in the southwest and northeast parts of the state are in severe drought.

Hluchan said 2011 had started well, with a cool and wet spring and heavy rain falls in July and early August. At that point the Brainerd area was above average for rainfall, he said.

“Every single month since then has been below normal for precipitation,” Hluchan said. The forecast calls for persistence, he said — normal precipitation and above normal temperatures. That won’t be enough to pull central Minnesota out of drought conditions, he said.

“We need quite a bit to get out of where we are at,” Hluchan said. “Even with near normal or slightly above normal precipitation it’s not enough to get us out of the drought. All of us across northern Minnesota are below average. Everyone is hoping for that one big storm.”

Normal liquid precipitation from September through January in Brainerd is 8.04 inches, Hluchan said. This year there’s been 3.32 inches.

“That is a lot, especially when you consider the average for a whole year is 27.32 inches,” he said. “With the exception of October, which had 1.5 inches, every month since has seen less than a half inch of precipitation. That’s significant and that’s why the drought has been getting worse. And it’s rare for a drought to get worse in winter time.”

Stoffel said the DNR and area fire departments have been maintaining equipment and are in some form of readiness for wildfires.

“You never really get to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have to worry about fire in this state,’” Stoffel said. “We’re ready to fight fire, to do what we got to do. The longer you are at it the harder it is to maintain yourself, to keep ready, but we’ll be ready for it. The issue is if it drags on and on, which it hasn’t really for quite a few years, where we haven’t had a break. That’s the big concern now.”

MATT ERICKSON may be reached at matt.erickson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5857.

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