Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dry winter sparks early spring fire season in Minnesota

A wildland firefighter watches as a helicopter drops flame retardant from above to tamp down flames of a wildfire in a Minnesota forest.
Minnesota Interagency Fire Center
A wildland firefighter watches as a helicopter drops flame retardant from above to tamp down flames of a wildfire in a Minnesota forest.

Minnesota's warm, dry winter has led to an early spring wildfire season across the state. Experts explain more and share safety and prevention tips.

Minnesota’s spring wildfire season is off to an early start.

In the last two-and-a-half weeks, there have been almost 100 fires throughout the state, burning nearly 3,000 acres. The wildfire season began six weeks earlier than usual, which is why the National Interagency Fire Center’s outlooks put Minnesota at above-normal risk for significant wildland fires in March and April.

As with most things weather-related this year, the state’s warm, dry winter is to blame.

The lack of snow means grass wasn’t packed down, leaving the grasslands that typically start off wildfire season even more vulnerable to fire. Leanne Langeberg, Minnesota Interagency Fire Center public information officer, said after grasses die back in the fall, they sit dormant in the winter.

“They have several months to continue drying out, what we refer to as curing, throughout the winter months,” she said. “So by spring, they have no plant life left in them to absorb moisture and ward off the potential of a quick-moving wildfire.”

Additionally, all of Northern Minnesota is experiencing some level of drought, with most of Beltrami and Cass counties and surrounding areas in severe drought. Langeberg said drought doesn’t cause fires, but the conditions lead to higher fire danger.

National Drought Mitigation Center

“That lack of moisture in the soil, the plants are more stressed, [and] they’re likely to, once they go through green up, go into a drying state again if they don’t have adequate water,” she said.

Because most of the state is without snow, the areas in which wildfires are catching are different this season, too. Typically, Minnesota’s wildfires start farther south and move north as the snow melts. Langeberg said this spring, that’s not the case.

“If you were to draw a diagonal line from Minneapolis up through Fargo and then from about Duluth over to Grand Forks, that’s kind of where the concentration of fire activity has been happening this year,” she said.

Even though the fire season started early, it won't have an early end. Karen Harrison, Department of Natural Resources wildfire prevention specialist, said it’s important that people aren’t caught off guard.

“In the spring, we have these changing weather patterns that may produce snow or rain, and those only provide temporary relief in snow-free areas,” she said. “The cured grasses and downed leaves that we have on the ground right now can quickly dry out and spring fire conditions will remain until we reach full green-up.”

As far as the summer wildfire season is concerned, Harrison said it all depends on the long-term weather patterns, and it’s too soon to predict those.

What’s important now is Minnesotans do their part to prevent wildfires during this unusual season. Harrison said 90% of wildfires in the state are human caused.

National Interagency Fire Center

“We really make a difference in our behaviors and our choices in what happens here in Minnesota,” she said. “That means we can all take steps to help reduce the chances of wildfires starting this season.”

The DNR’s Firewise program provides resources to give your home the best protection in case of a wildfire.

Langeberg said every year people are injured by trying to put out a wildfire themselves. If you spot a wildfire, get to a safe location and call 911. The best thing people can do, Langeberg said, is follow the systems that are in place.

“Tuning into the burning permit system that DNR has in place or working with tribal fire agencies and organizations to follow their systems is going to be the most powerful tool that we have this year to prevent human-caused wildfires,” she said.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.