Wildfires burn thousands of acres in southern, western Minnesota

The fires signal an earlier-than-usual spring fire season

Smoke rises in the distance
Flames are visible and plumes of dark smoke rise into the sky as a wildfire burns a few miles east of Waseca on Sunday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Updated: March 4, 12:35 p.m. | Posted: March 3, 4:54 p.m.

Wildfires in southern and western Minnesota left at least three people injured and burned more than 3,000 acres Sunday amid warm weather, gusty winds and low humidity.

State officials said at least eight wildfires were reported from southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area and northwest to Moorhead. Six totaled less than two acres, but two — near Fergus Falls and Waseca — burned several thousand acres.

In western Minnesota, the Fergus Falls Fire Department reported that a fast-moving wildfire in Western Township, southwest of Fergus Falls, burned 2,300 acres on Sunday. Officials said it was contained as of Sunday night, with Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crews monitoring areas that were still smoldering.

Meanwhile, around noon Sunday, a wildfire ignited north of Waseca, swelling to more than 500 acres by late afternoon as it spread across fields and wetlands, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

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The fire was brought under control Sunday night after burning an estimated 1,000 acres.

The Waseca Fire Department said one resident and two firefighters were injured during the fire. The two firefighters were treated and released; there was no update Monday on the resident’s condition. Some homes were evacuated but no buildings were damaged, the fire department said. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Leanne Langeberg, a public information officer with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, said a helicopter would continue water drops Monday, in order to put out “lingering hot spots.”

“With the conditions coming down last night, there hasn’t been any reports of growth to the fire,” she said.

Twelve fire departments responded to the fire near Waseca, with support from the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other local agencies. In addition to the helicopter, two planes were dispatched to lay down fire retardant, Langeberg said.

Smoke rises in the distance
Fire crews from Kilkenny, Minn., arrive to help battle a wildfire northeast of Waseca on Sunday afternoon.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an advisory Sunday, saying the wildfire could affect air quality along the Interstate 35 corridor as far north as the Twin Cities. Shifting winds later pushed the smoke to the east.

The fire near Waseca started as a small brush fire, growing amid ideal fire conditions. Sunday’s weather conditions prompted officials to issue the first red flag warning of the year in Minnesota, signaling ideal conditions for flames to easily spread quickly out of control.

Langeberg said the season’s first red flag warning usually is not issued until late March and early April, but the lack of snow cover this winter spurred an earlier warning.

Smoke rises in the distance
Flames are visible as a wildfire burns across grasslands and wetlands a few miles east of Waseca on Sunday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

“If we continue on the drier pattern, we’re likely to have a more-active spring wildfire season this year,” said Langeberg. "What we’re seeing this time of year is a lot of the grasses that were left over from last year are now once again exposed and they've had the whole winter to dry out in here. And when you get a heat source that touches down on those grasses, a fire can ignite.”

Langeberg said having so many wildfires already is “traditionally very uncommon” because there is usually snow still covering the landscape across Minnesota. If a dry spring continues, Langeberg said the state may reach out for resources from national partnerships.

“We need to be very mindful of the dry conditions that exist this spring. And really do our best to be mindful of how our activities involving any type of heat source can quickly spread into an unintended wildfire,” Langeberg said. “For those that do spot an unintended wildfire, call 911, immediately, because trained firefighters can respond quickly to those types of scenarios.”

Smoke rises in the distance
Plumes of dark smoke rise into the sky as a wildfire burns a few miles northeast of Waseca on Sunday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: And over the weekend, wildfires in Southern and Western Minnesota burned thousands of acres amid warm, windy, and dry conditions. The fire that started north of Waseca was under control as of last night after it burned more than 1,000 acres. In Western Minnesota, a fast moving wildfire southwest of Fergus Falls burned more than 2,000 acres of grassland and is also under control.

Those fires marked the start of an early wildfire season with no snow cover and dry conditions. That means it could be a longer than normal fire season this year. Here with an update is Leanne Langeberg. She's with the Department of Natural Resources. Hey, Leanne. Thanks for taking the time.

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Hi. Thank you so much, Cathy, for having me join you today.

CATHY WURZER: The Fergus fire was the largest, but let's start with the fire in Waseca. I understand one person, two firefighters were hurt in Waseca. Was there anything particularly dangerous about that fire?

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Yeah. So yesterday in Waseca County, there were red flag warning conditions that had set up starting around noon yesterday and were in place at least until about 6:00 PM last night. So it was just a combination of some critical fire weather mixing with incredibly dry grassland that really hasn't had much moisture over the warm, dry winter that we experienced just the past couple of months. So the prime conditions all set up for a very active wildfire to not only ignite, but to take off and spread very rapidly yesterday.

CATHY WURZER: And boy, I guess you could see the smoke billowing as far away as the South Metro for goodness sakes.

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Yeah. So when you think about the winds that were moving through yesterday were southerly winds, so it makes a lot of sense that communities north of the Waseca area where seeing the warning signs of that smoke as it rose. It's an incredible day, and we do think about those conditions on a daily basis here at the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids and throughout the state.

So it's part of our planning and preparedness. And then having agreements in place from the local fire departments on up through state, federal, and tribal partnerships, we have the resources to be able to respond to those active wildfires.

CATHY WURZER: The Fergus area fire was the largest in terms of scope, in terms of the number of acres burned. Was that in a specific area that once a fire starts there, it just really took off because of conditions? And of course, also it was pretty windy too. But was there something about the Fergus area that really fanned the flames there?

LEANNE LANGEBERG: It really comes down to the grasses and marshlands. So when you think about no snow cover throughout the year allowed those grasses to really stay standing throughout the winter months. Normally, when we have a snow pack, it lays those grasses down.

And then throughout the winter, grasses aren't able to take in any moisture once they completely freeze over. So you've got dry standing grasses, and they are just primed to be able to quickly carry wildfire. And in the area up by Fergus Falls, it's a traditional wetland marsh type of scenario. And similar conditions that we saw down in Waseca County.

CATHY WURZER: Do we have an idea at this point as to how these fires started at all?

LEANNE LANGEBERG: No. It'll take some time to do the investigative work that's involved with response to wildfires that reach these large acreage and when there are injuries and structures that are threatened. So response very common that an investigative team will come in and do the observations that they need to do to make the connections to what ultimately caused these fires. So right now, they're both under investigation.

CATHY WURZER: So this doesn't bode well for the fire season if this is the first two big fires and it's early March. What's the Interagency Fire Center doing to prepare?

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Yeah. So it's a pretty awesome program that we have built here in Minnesota with all the agencies that do respond to wildfire throughout Minnesota. We have coordinated agreements in place that we can readily share resources, be it the firefighters on the ground to dispatchers, to the equipment that we need to respond, to the supplies to keep our firefighters working safely. That coordination is happening year-round.

During the winter months, it's a lot of training that tends to take place, getting people prepared, progressing up into the leadership roles that we need to have filled to respond to active wildfire to the predictive services that takes place and looking at the projected outlooks for conditions. How are how are trees and grasses all faring through the winter? Do they have enough moisture?

And then we think about those weather conditions that will undoubtedly move in every spring and monitoring the precipitation events that move through Minnesota. So the lack of snowfall is definitely set us back this year and encouraged a quicker start to the fire season and what we traditionally see, which is about anywhere from mid to late March into early to mid-April.

CATHY WURZER: So I bet most of the fires burn during that time. And that as things start to leaf out, there's still a lot of fuel to burn obviously. But this is such an odd, odd winter. When you look at the long range forecasts, is the Interagency Fire Center expecting any other potential issues between, say, now and early April as things start to leaf out?

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Yeah. We'll definitely go through green up regardless. That's going to happen every year. It's just how long that plant material can hold on to the moisture that's available. So drought conditions, while they don't cause wildfires, they play an active part in how susceptible a plant is to catching and carrying wildfire. So we currently are outlooks are looking at a fairly active spring. And then we'll continue to monitor that throughout the spring season.

What can change that is precipitation events that start to move into the state. So if we start to see more weather patterns move in, we'll see those conditions start to calm down. If we continue on the path that we're on, we're likely to stay with more active wildfire events. And it'll eventually progress from the grasslands and move into more of the forested areas as they begin their processes of greening up.

CATHY WURZER: And by the way, I'm assuming that you have probably reciprocity agreements with other fire departments in other states, wildfire fighters if you need the help.

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Yes. Again, it's a part of that awesome coordination and preparedness that we have in place. So while we have access to a vast number of resources here in Minnesota, we do have the capability to reach out to regional partners through our eastern area coordination center, which is located in Milwaukee but extends out to the 20 Northeast United States from Minnesota on up through Maine.

We also have unique partnerships in place with our Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact Partners. And that includes Wisconsin, Michigan, and then our Canadian partners to the north, Ontario and Manitoba. So the way that we tend to adjust when we have greater needs is we'll start to reach out to that eastern area and Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact first.

And then depending on where conditions sit throughout the United States, we also have access to the National Coordination Center, which sits in Boise, Idaho, and then we can start to reach out to a much broader network nationally.

CATHY WURZER: Depending on conditions. Leanne, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much. Best of luck.

LEANNE LANGEBERG: Thank you so much, Cathy Wurzer. Have a wonderful day.

CATHY WURZER: You too. Leanne Langeberg is with the Interagency Fire Department with the DNR.

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