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Hot, dry winds fan Northland wildfires

Combine a week without rain, nearly 40 mph wind gusts and temperatures hitting 80 degrees. Mix with dead and dry grass, leaves and brush, and the Northland had the perfect ingredients Sunday for nasty wildfires.

Combine a week without rain, nearly 40 mph wind gusts and temperatures hitting 80 degrees. Mix with dead and dry grass, leaves and brush, and the Northland had the perfect ingredients Sunday for nasty wildfires.

A fire south of Superior started along a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail line, with train sparks igniting more than 15 small fires that grew together. The blaze burned across 650 acres, said Joe Gallagher, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Lake Superior Area forest supervisor.

The brush fire also burned into a large pile of old tires, creating a wall of acrid smoke across Douglas County Highway B.

A Minnesota-based CL-215 water bomber and a Wisconsin helicopter made dozens of water drops on the fire and, along with ground crews, prevented the fire from destroying any nearby homes.

Volunteer fire departments from the towns of Oakland, Parkland, Summit, Amnicon and Superior also fought the fire.

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Minnesota and Wisconsin fire crews were scurrying over the weekend to keep up with dozens of fires across the central and northern portions of the states, including a complex of three fires covering more than 2,000 acres near Grygla in northwestern Minnesota.

By Sunday afternoon, ground crews and aircraft from local, state and federal agencies also were fighting fires near Sugar Lake near Grand Rapids, and near Holyoke, Hinckley, Sandstone, Hibbing, Brainerd, Marcel and Red Lake, said Jean Bergerson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.

"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.

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 on alert 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.

Fires continued to sprout into the evening, but none appeared to be threatening, said Sheldon Mack, a Minnesota DNR fire official in Grand Rapids.

In Wisconsin, fire conditions were listed as extreme, and fires were reported across the forested region of the state, including smaller fires near Brule.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning -- a signal to the public and firefighters to be on the alert -- for much of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula for Sunday because of hot, gusty winds; high temperatures; and extremely low humidity. Burning restrictions remain in place across the Northland.

A cold front should help reduce fire danger today, increasing humidity and dropping high temperatures 10-15 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 rain.

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"It's not going to rain very much, if it does at all. It looks like it might fizzle out,'' Parke said of this 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 traditionally are the peak wildfire months in Minnesota and Wisconsin, before grass and forests turn green with new growth. The problem becomes critical any time an area goes a week or more without rain.

Common causes for fires this time of year include brush pile fires and campfires that get out of control; cigarettes; sparks from trains, recreational vehicles and chainsaws; and arson.

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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