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Hot, dry wind fans fires; Red Flag Warning issued

Combine a week without rain, 40 mph wind gusts and temperatures near 80 degrees. Mix with dead and dry grass, leaves and brush and the Northland has the perfect ingredients Sunday for a nasty wildfire recipe.

Combine a week without rain, 40 mph wind gusts and temperatures near 80 degrees. Mix with dead and dry grass, leaves and brush and the Northland has the perfect ingredients Sunday for a nasty wildfire recipe.

Minnesota and Wisconsin fire crews have been scurrying this weekend to keep up with dozens of new fires across the central and northern portions of the state, including a 2,000 acre complex of fires near Grygla in northwestern Minnesota.

That fire started Saturday and continued to grow on Sunday, said Jean Bergerson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.

Already early Sunday afternoon, ground crews and aircraft from local, state and federal agencies were fighting fires near Sugar Lake, which is near Grand Rapids; near Sandstone, Hibbing, Brainerd and Marcel and Red Lake.

On normal days, fire activity doesn't start until mid-afternoon.

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"It's not even 2 p.m. and everything we have in the state [firefighting aircraft] already is in the air and working a fire,'' Bergerson said. None of the fires was considered immediately threatening to homes or businesses, but that could change at any moment, she said.

In addition to a wealth of small helicopters and the state's fleet of amphibious, water-bombing airplanes and ground-based tankers, the Minnesota Air National Guard also was standing by in St. Paul with Blackhawk helicopters fitted with water buckets to help if needed. Ground crews with four-wheel-drive fire engines and tracked vehicles also were responding to many fires.

In Wisconsin, fire conditions were listed as extreme, and fires were reported across the forested region of the state. A fire was burning just after 2 p.m. off County Road B in the Town of Superior. The Brule area dispatcher for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was too busy to give details.

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for much of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula Sunday because of hot, gusty winds, high temperatures and extremely low humidity -- conditions that were fanning any flames that started. Burning restrictions are in place across the Northland.

A cold front should help reduce fire danger Monday, dropping temperatures 10-20 degrees across the region, especially near Lake Superior, said Peter Parke, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. But the system likely won't bring much needed rain.

"It's not going to rain very much if it does at all. It looks like it might fizzle out,'' Parke said of Monday evening's rain chances. "I think we're back in a dry period this week.''

Much of the region remains locked in a persistent drought, with a severe drought gripping areas north of Duluth.

April and May are traditionally the peak wildfire seasons in Minnesota and Wisconsin, before grasses and forests turn green with new growth. The problem becomes critical any time an area goes a week or more without rain.

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Brush pile fires and campfires that get out of control, cigarettes, along with sparks from trains, recreational vehicles, chainsaws, as well as arson, all are common causes for fires this time of year.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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