Fire weather season has arrived early

Early start to spring wildfire season

With dry conditions and warmer temperatures, the spring fire weather season has started early.

The average snow depth in Duluth for the end of February is just over fifteen inches. This year, however, has been significantly different. 

“This winter, so far from the beginning of the season, back in the fall to the present, on February 29th, we measured 18.7 inches of snowfall here at the office in Duluth, which is getting us close to making a run at least snowiest winter on record,” said NWS Duluth Meteorologist Woody Unruh. 

On Monday, the snow depth at the National Weather Service’s noon observation dropped down to zero. 

“So up towards the Arrowhead and into north-central Minnesota, like far north-central Minnesota, towards the national forest, there is still a little bit of snow, but it’s still much, much less than what we should expect for the beginning of March, late February,” said Unruh. 

According to Unruh, the snow water equivalent is currently the lowest on record. This means there is no extra moisture in the ground to melt in the spring. Because of the dry conditions and warmer weather, the start of the spring wildfire season has shifted. 

“What we would call a start to the wildfire season here in Minnesota, typically, it’s late March, early April,” said Minnesota DNR Wildfire Prevention Specialist Karen Harrison. “It kind of moves from southern Minnesota up north as the temperature is increasing, the snow is receding. But this year, it was mid-February when we really started to see an uptick in wildfire activity, and it’s not just in the south. We’re seeing it across the state.”

 In just the last week and a half, the Minnesota DNR has responded to 45 wildfires covering 545 acres.

“This year is just different in that we don’t have the snow on the ground. We didn’t have a quality snowpack that helped to lay all that grass down, so we’ve got grass that’s standing,” said Minnesota Interagency Fire Center Public Information Officer Leanne Langeberg. “We’ve also been under warmer conditions. When you start to combine warmer conditions with windier days, you tend to see the relative humidity drop. It’s that dryness combined with the gusty winds that help to contribute to when a fire does ignite, to help carry that and spread it rapidly.”

Although the fire season started early, the DNR and other agencies within MNICS prepare year-round to always be ready for fires in the area. 

“We know what to observe for, and that it’s a matter of getting the right people in the tools in place so that we’re prepared to respond like this with it starting a little bit earlier,” said Langeberg. “Fire seasons appear to be getting longer, becoming more year-round events. This is just a year where we’re putting into practice things that we normally do 1 to 2 months in advance.”

According to the Minnesota DNR, the risk for wildfire activity will remain high to very high for March through May.

“Areas that are currently abnormally dry, those are expected to go into a drought,” said Unruh. “So essentially, going to spring, most of the Northland is likely to experience at least a moderate drought, and that just adds to the risk for fires.”

90 percent of fires in Minnesota are caused by humans, but there are ways to prevent starting one. 

“If you’re recreating outdoors or maybe you’re doing some yard cleanup maintenance, mowing your lawn, with the type of conditions we’re seeing right now, we have a lot of fine fuels, grasses, small twigs, leaves that didn’t get compacted with the snowpack this year, so they’re kind of drying out quickly,” said Harrison. “So anything that could cause a spark or produce heat, we want to be careful. So ATVs and vehicles try to park on gravel or pavement whenever possible. if you’re using a kind of metal equipment outside, be careful. If you hit a rock, make sure you’re paying attention. That could easily spark a wildfire in those dry grasses, and it could spread pretty quickly.”

The Minnesota Firewise Program works with homeowners and communities to address the wildfire risk for those located near natural spaces. 

The latest fire weather conditions and burn restrictions can be found at this link for Minnesota and here for Wisconsin.