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Dozens of wildfires keep crews busy in Northland

Tinder-dry conditions and winds gusting in excess of 50 mph fueled dozens of wildfires across the Northland on Thursday. "It really started to blow up" as winds picked up after 1 p.m., said Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fir...

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A Duluth firefighter uses a hose to control a grass fire on Arrowhead Road in Duluth Thursday afternoon. Red flag warnings were in effect for much of the Northland due to high winds and low humidity in the area. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Tinder-dry conditions and winds gusting in excess of 50 mph fueled dozens of wildfires across the Northland on Thursday.

“It really started to blow up" as winds picked up after 1 p.m., said Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.

By late afternoon no large fires had been reported, but local fire departments and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources crews responded to many small fires across the region.

“It’s been a very busy day. But most of them have been a few acres,”  Goad said, adding that there were no immediate reports of major structures lost or injuries.

Quite a few fires were reported Thursday evening, but most were in central Minnesota. The largest wildfire, as of 8 p.m., was burning in a old lake bed with no structures about 8 miles east of McGregor, Minn., Goad said. Crews were planning to work into the night on extinguishing the fire and expect the fire to be contained Friday, she said.

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Unusually low humidity levels, temperatures in the 50s and 60s and gale-force winds combined to push sparks from various sources into wildfires within minutes. Most of the fires were confined to grassy areas.

A Minnesota Department of Transportation automated weather station on the Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior reported a 71 mph wind gust on Thursday afternoon. Winds gusted to 59 mph at the Duluth airport, 51 mph in Two Harbors and 48 mph in Cloquet.

A number of fires reportedly started due to power lines being blown down by the high winds, and Minnesota Power and Lake Country Power reported dozens of outages across the region.

Such was the case along Bear Island Road near Island Lake, about 15 miles northwest of Duluth, where a tree fell on a power line and sparked a fire just after 1 p.m. Thursday.

By chance, Claude Wenaas happened to stop at her home nearby to go for a run in between her real estate appointments. She didn’t see or smell any smoke when she started her run at 12:30 p.m.

After experiencing “brutal” wind during the run, she arrived back home at 1:30 p.m. to find the woods on fire between her house and her neighbor’s house.

“I’m so glad I’m training for Grandma’s Marathon or else my house would have burned down,” she said.

None of her neighbors were home at the time, and Wenaas said she typically wouldn’t be at home at that time of day. She said firefighters at the scene told her that if she had come home 20 minutes later, everything would have been on fire.

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“I’m so fortunate. I’m so glad I was home,” she said, adding that it was a “pretty scary” situation.

Four fire departments responded, Wenaas said, and she’s grateful the firefighters knew what to do and quickly extinguished the flames.

Wenaas described the incident as a “friendly fire” in that the flames burned near structures but left them untouched. The fire burned up to the garage that was housing her new car, and up to the concrete of her neighbor’s garage and greenhouse.

“It burned all the way around the greenhouse,” she said.

Arrowhead Road fire

The Duluth Fire Department responded to a grass fire on the south side of Arrowhead Road near Rice Lake Road at about 2:30 p.m. The fire was near the Aspenwood complex, but the fire didn’t reach the structure and no evacuations were needed, Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martinson said.

The Arrowhead Road fire was about a half-acre in size and got into the trees, but two fire crews were able to extinguish it quickly, Martinson said. Flare-ups continued to require attention for about an hour. Officials said the cause of the fire was unknown Thursday afternoon.

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Among the many fires reported Thursday, some of the largest were near Deer River, Pequot Lakes and Tower, Goad said, as well as along U.S. Highway 53 in the Eveleth-Fayal Township area.

Conditions were too windy for helicopters to join in the battle Thursday, and fixed-wing airplane tankers were limited to flying out of airports to refill because most lakes and ponds are still frozen.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday ordered the Minnesota National Guard to make two Blackhawk helicopters available to help battle fires. They were expected to coordinate with the DNR on where to deploy, although no major fires were active. The helicopters also would have to work where there was open water to use their water-carrying buckets.

With the snow cover gone for weeks in some areas and last year’s grass and leaves now dry and ready to burn, small fires that usually wouldn’t spread can grow out of control quickly under current conditions.

In addition to careless smokers, sparks from trains, logging and recreational equipment, campfires, grills, and other outside activities can ignite fires that spread.

Much cooler conditions forecast for today, along with lesser winds, should help reduce fire danger for the weekend. But the region remains far below normal for precipitation, and any prolonged period without rain could see increased fire danger until grass and trees turn green.

Power outages

More than 5,000 customers were without power in the Northland at times on Thursday afternoon as utility crews struggled to keep up with the many downed lines.

At one point, Minnesota Power reported 120 separate outages in its service area, and Lake Country Power reported 79 separate outages.

Some areas that saw major outages on Thursday included Fredenberg, Grand Lake, Twig, Pike Lake, Central Lakes, Zim, Forbes, Mahtowa and Barnum. Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood and areas along Minnesota Highway 210 west of Carlton also saw sizeable outages, according to the utilities’ online outage maps.

At 7 p.m., the two utilities combined reported about 70 outages affecting about 2,000 customers.

The gusty winds on Thursday downed branches and trees that in turn knocked down power lines, said Tami Zaun of Lake Country Power. All of the utility’s crews were working Thursday afternoon to restore power as quickly and safely as possible, Zaun said.

All of the power outages across Minnesota Power’s service area Thursday afternoon were due to the high winds knocking trees onto power lines, spokeswoman Kelley Eldien said.

Eldien said the utility saw the gusty winds predicted for Thursday and made sure all its crews were on call.

On Thursday afternoon, Zaun said she expected power outages to continue into the night until winds calmed down.

“Our hands are really tied by the wind,” she said.

Related Topics: FIRESWEATHER
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