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Wildfire burning for 3rd day in Garrison, Pillager responds to hayfield blaze as dry weather adds to high fire danger

Firefighters battled fires in Garrison and Fairview Township over the weekend.

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A DNR helicopter drops water on a burning field Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, near Rock Lake in Pillsbury State Forest. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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Two wildfires in the Brainerd lakes area over the weekend served as a sign of the extremely dry weather conditions felt in nearly all of the state this year.

Crews in Garrison were into a third day Sunday, Aug. 15, of battling a fire that started about noon Friday back in the woods near Highway 169 and County Highway 26.

As of 5 p.m. Sunday, Garrison Fire Chief Bruce Breun said the last report he received showed the fire to be about 24 acres in size. Firefighters from Garrison and Deerwood were on hand to supply water and assist members of the Department of Natural Resources Forestry Division in extinguishing the fire, which Breun said had turned into a peat moss fire, meaning it was burning in the ground.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

While the DNR has certainly dealt with long-burning fires before, Breun said this scenario is an anomaly for Garrison.

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A plane drops fire retardant on a wildfire near Garrison. Contributed

“But peat fires, when they happen, they can go for days, and even months they’ve been known to burn for,” Breun said. “... I’ve witnessed them in Aitkin and one down by Mille Lacs, where they even set up sprinklers and just let them run there for a month at a time, that kind of thing. So that’s kind of how peat fires work. Once they burn down into the ground.”

One helicopter and three airplanes joined in the fight Friday to spray water and drop flame retardant over the fire, and a helicopter also helped out Saturday.

A friendly community member even did their part to help the efforts by having food from McDonald’s delivered to the crews Friday, which Breun said actually happens fairly frequently.

“And then otherwise some of our lovely spouses — and one in particular from the fire department — have been feeding everybody all weekend, too,” he said.

Fairview Township fire

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Pillager firefighters spent about 45 minutes to an hour Sunday afternoon containing a hayfield fire in Fairview Township near Cass County highways 1 and 15, within the Pillsbury State Forest.

The blaze covered about 8-10 acres by the time crews had it under control, Pillager Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Cremers said.

A farmer was doing some haying on the field when the fire broke out, Cremers said, but it is unclear how it began.

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A hay bale continues to burn in a scorched field Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, near Rock Lake in Pillsbury State Forest. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“Something will spark or something off of a tractor or just something got hot somewhere, I’m assuming,” Cremers said.

The DNR Forestry Division was on site with equipment, including a helicopter, and the Cass County Sheriff’s Office assisted as well.

Cremers said Pillager firefighters have seen a couple smaller grass fires that were contained quickly in the last few weeks, but Sunday’s was the largest.

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Dry weather

The lakes area fires over the weekend are just two of the multitude of wildfires that have cropped up this year as weather conditions continue to be dry.

Nearly the entire state of Minnesota is experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, except for a small section in the southeast corner of the state. The majority of Crow Wing and Cass counties are experiencing “extreme drought” conditions, while portions of Norman, Polk, Red Lake, Clearwater, Pennington, Beltrami, Lake of the Woods and Koochiching counties are considered to be in an “exceptional drought.”

The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport recorded 7.87 inches of precipitation for the year as of Sunday, which Bryan Howell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, said is up to 9 inches less than an average year.

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DNR forestry firefighters work to extinguish hot spots in a scorched field Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, near Rock Lake within the Pillsbury State Forest in Fairview Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The National Weather Service in Duluth issued a fire weather watch Sunday, warning of potentially critical fire weather conditions for parts of Koochiching, St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Itasca, St. Louis, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin, Carlton and Pine counties.

A fire weather watch is one step away from a red flag warning, Howell said, and means conditions could escalate into what’s known as a red flag warning and is defined as times when wind speeds are 25 mph or higher while relative humidity is under 25%.

Burning restrictions are in place for northern and central Minnesota, as far down as St. Cloud, while burning permits are required in the southern portion of the state. In the Region Five area of Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties, fires are restricted only to those with agency-approved permits.

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DNR forestry firefighters work to extinguish hot spots in a scorched field Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, near Rock Lake within the Pillsbury State Forest in Fairview Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“Bonfires are not a good idea,” Howell said. “Burning trash or piles of leaves or whatnot, that’s not a good idea. A lot of places are banning campfires and such right now. A lot of times people don’t put them out completely like they’re supposed to, so they leave and then it just kind of sits there and smolders, and then the winds whip up and then next thing you know, you’ve got fires spreading pretty quickly.”

Fire weather watches are not typical for this late in the summer, Howell said, as normally there would be enough precipitation to keep vegetation lush and green at this point, but because everything is dried out from the lack of rain, fire conditions remain high.

Breun said the main instigators of fires he has seen this year are fireworks and burning brush. While Brainerd firefighters have not had to battle any large wildfires this season, Fire Chief Tim Holmes said he has still seen an increase overall.

“We have had definitely an increase in just the smaller fires getting away from people that don’t expect this late in the season that the fire will move as quickly as it does,” Holmes said during a phone interview Sunday.

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A DNR helicopter drops water on a burning field Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, near Rock Lake within the Pillsbury State Forest in Fairview Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

DNR resources are running thin throughout the state, according to Keith Riedel, manager at the DNR tanker base at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. The base had two air tankers and a helicopter available over the weekend, with one tanker sent up to fight a fire in Ely.

When large wildfires occur, Riedel said tanker bases get a call, fill an aircraft with flame retardant and send them to the scene. In some cases, helicopters will also drop buckets of water on the fires as well.

“Everybody is asking for aircraft, so it’s actually a little surprising that we have two large air tankers in the state right now because they’re in high demand,” Riedel said Sunday. “We also have a shortage of people to work at our bases. Everybody’s spread thin.”

While the coming week is still looking pretty dry, Howell said there is a chance for some precipitation between Thursday and Saturday. How much, however, is still up in the air.

Lakes area residents might also see smoky skies this week, as the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities shared on its Facebook page Sunday wildfire smoke from Canada will again make its way south Monday and Tuesday.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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