Labor Day wildfire under control

Drought is a factor


September 8, 2023

Carrie Foley

Photo of Kalli Road fire.

You could say that parts of Carlton County lucked out this past Labor Day weekend. Things could have been much worse. Days after a swath across northern Minnesota, including all of the county, was designated in the "extreme drought" category, we were hit with record high temperatures over the holiday weekend.

Drought conditions lingering into the fall are not common in the region. Infamously, the region also received what would have been declared an "extreme" level of dryness in the fall of 1918, when the entire county was struck by devastating forest fires.

Low humidity readings along with wind gusts triggered fire warnings last weekend, and two fires did come, a structure fire in the far west of the county and a wildfire in the east, which grew to 70 acres before it was contained.

Wildfire smoke was initially reported at about 5:30 p.m. Monday, south of the intersection of county roads 11 and 8 in Barnum Township.

Once the shoreline of glacial Lake Superior between Moose Lake and Nickerson, the area that was burning is heavily wooded and swampy. When authorities were alerted, the fire was about an acre in size but was threatening some homes. It quickly grew to 40 acres before flames seen 2 to 4 feet high could be tamed.

But the fire wasn't truly tamed, and 30 more acres burned on Tuesday and into Wednesday.

As the fire spread, six residences were evacuated.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helicopter dropped water and aided firefighters on the ground from Barnum, Blackhoof, Moose Lake, Mahtowa, Carlton and Kettle River departments.

No structures were damaged and no injuries were reported, DNR spokeswoman Leanne Langeberg said. She said a half-inch of rain overnight Tuesday helped, but was not enough to douse the fire. The DNR could not use aircraft on Wednesday due to the weather.

Three residences remained empty Wednesday as the fire threat continued. Carlton County Emergency Management was also on the scene.

The burned area is part of a tree farm run by Alan and Sharon Finifrock. The Finifrock family has had land there since the 1930s. The couple received the 2018 Minnesota Outstanding Conservationist Award, in part for their work planting close to 20,000 trees by hand between 1977 and 1996.

Alan Finifrock said the fire hit "small areas of the tree farm, but it appears that my planted plantations and shack have not been damaged."

He told the Pine Knot that he hadn't been able to go to his land as crews continued to battle the fire. He said the main area that burned was down from his property at the junction of county roads 11 and 8.

He was impressed with the professionalism from emergency crews.

"It was an exciting day with water bombers, helicopters, four volunteer fire departments, DNR crews, sheriff deputies and TV crews," he said in a note to his family on social media.

Mopping up

By Wednesday afternoon, virtually none of the wooded marshland a few miles east of Moose Lake was still on fire, according to crews on the scene. Firefighters were clearing a "dozer line" through the woods around the fire to contain the fire. Visible from that line were swaths of burned brush marked by wisps of smoke.

Small teams trundling along the line in rugged "marsh master" vehicles sprayed down the woods inside that perimeter. They felt with their hands along the ground to test for "hot spots," patches of roots, peat moss, and other detritus that can still smolder and burn underground.

"This is just mop up," said Jim McCue, a longtime firefighter for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources based in the department's field office in Side Lake.

The fire that began in the late afternoon on Labor Day was aided by dry, windy conditions and lingering 90-degree weather. The midweek storm system helped tamp down the fire, responders said.

"The rain and us fighting it knocked all the open flame out," McCue said. "So we've just got smoke and hotspots."

The second fire this week was near Eagle Lake, just southwest of Cromwell on Sunday night. A 911 call came in about 10:30 p.m. about an abandoned building on fire off Kalli Road, on the north side of the lake. Four fire departments fought the fire for a few hours before it was contained. They included crews from Cromwell-Wright, Kettle River, Mahtowa and McGregor.

Officials have not yet determined the cause of either fire.

Extreme drought

Rain and cooler, normal temperatures for early September are expected to continue. Just 10 percent of the state was determined to be in the "extreme drought" category in late August. The band that includes Carlton County stretched from Wadena County in the west and into northeast Wisconsin. There is another "extreme" pocket in southwest Minnesota.

Carlton County has been in the "moderate" or "severe" category of drought for most of the summer. It comes after a winter of record snowfall in many areas that temporarily relieved the lingering effects of the 2021 drought. Last year at this time, only about 10 percent of the county was considered "abnormally dry," the lowest on the scale. "Extreme" falls just under the highest category used by climatologists, "exceptional drought," which can be seen in parts of northern Wisconsin.

Joe Bowen

Carlton County emergency management director Marlyn Halvorson, left, and a Barnum firefighter watch as firefighters prepare a "Marsh Master" - its tanks filled with water - for a trip into the marshy woods to fight a wildfire Wednesday. The 70-acre wildfire in Barnum Township was largely contained by Wednesday afternoon, but crews were still looking for hotspots.

The DNR tracks drought conditions through the U.S. Drought Monitor. It reported at the end of August that 29 percent of the state is in "severe" drought and 37 percent is in the "moderate" category.

The DNR said that with the expected dry weather during the holiday weekend, more areas of the state could easily reach the "extreme" range.

The DNR lifted burning restrictions in the region in early July after a wetter weather period. It has not imposed any new bans under the growing drought conditions but said extreme caution and common sense should be used under the current conditions.

The drought pattern has not been as penetrating as the one that lingered through 2021, when area lake and river levels hit rock bottom, literally. The September weather forecast calls for rain at least once a week into October.

The rainfall total at the Cloquet Forestry Center was 1.7 inches in August, according to forest manager Kyle Gill. The average for the month historically is 4 inches. The five-year average, 2018 through 2022, is 3.29 inches.

Less than 2 inches of rain hasn't been seen since 2008, Gill said.


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