Wild wintertime grass fires

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Fire hazards in the state are near an all-time high this year and fire chiefs from around Sherburne County are warning residents to take extra precautions.

Fire Chief Maloney and other fire officials surveyed a grass fire in Baldwin Township. Area fire chiefs are urging extreme caution and preparing for the worst due to the unusually dry conditions. Photo by Nathan Warner

“People think that because there’s snow on the ground, it’s 30 degrees outside and we’re in the middle of February that they don’t have to take the same precautions that they do in the summer,” Zimmerman Fire Chief Maloney said, “but this year has been extremely dry and as a result, we’re facing an unusual fire hazard.”

“It’s unprecedented,” Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham said about the fire hazards his department has been facing so far this winter.  “The public needs to exercise due caution,” he stressed. “Homeowners are responsible for maintaining a safe environment on their property and we’re seeing a lot of reckless behavior because no one associates grass fires with February.” Cunningham added.

This past weekend Cunningham said the wind kicked up and the humidity was low, which brought conditions to a head with fires flaring up across the county.

“We had a grass fire in Elk River and a fire at a residential property in Otsego that burned three and a half acres,” Cunningham said, adding that both were accidental ignitions caused by recreational fires getting out of hand.

Firefighters from multiple departments combated a grass fire in Baldwin Township that burned 10 acres. Photo by Nathan Warner

Around the same time as the Otsego fire on Saturday, Chief Maloney was responding to a large grass fire in Baldwin Township that devoured 10 acres behind an old farmhouse, producing a layer of smoke seen for miles.  At the scene, emergency vehicles drove out into the field to combat flames that rose above their trucks.  Firefighters managed to cut off the blaze before it reached stands of pine trees.  “The fire ran really good,” Maloney said.  “It burned around snow patches and just kept going.”

The cause was predictable — an unattended campfire from the night before.

“The resident thought the fire was out,” Maloney explained, “but the wind kicked up the ashes and lit the grass on fire.”

Another fire in Livonia Township on Sunday burned three acres and was hot enough to burn under the snow cover.  “The cause of that fire was a burning pit where a resident was burning paper,” Maloney said, adding that the conditions firefighters are seeing now usually don’t start until April.

“It hasn’t been this dry since the 1940s,” he explained.

This historic situation led Cunningham to institute a fire ban in Elk River over the weekend.  “Normally we empty the water tanks in some of our trucks during the winter and give them a rest,” he said, “but this winter we’re keeping the tanks full and the gear ready.”

The situation looks dire for the spring when things warm up even more and what little snow cover there is will melt, exposing the dry brush.

Because of what spring may bring, Maloney and other Sherburne County emergency services are participating in a tabletop exercise with the DNR local fire departments, and the Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare for a potential fire in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

“The conditions are there,” Maloney said, “so we feel we need to be prepared to deal with a large-scale situation like that.”