A lack of snow cover across all but one little corner of Minnesota has left the state with an unusually high fire danger for late December.
The state Department of Natural Resources allows no outdoor burning of debris and vegetation burning without a permit, except in Cook County at the northeastern tip of the state. Cook is the only one of Minnesota's 87 counties with snow on the ground.
Campfires are allowed without burning permits. Winter is usually a time of low fire danger, but this year's extremely wet spring and dry fall have reversed the traditional fire seasons in the state, according to Steve Simmer, fire supervisor with the DNR's Division of Forestry in St. Paul.
In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Simmer said he's only seen it happen three or four times in his 30-plus years with the DNR.
"We have actually had more fires in October, November and December than we had in March, April and May," he said. "We have had several landowners that have been unpleasantly surprised."
The grass fire danger is high in west central Minnesota. Many people are taking advantage of the unusually mild conditions to complete outside work, or just aren't thinking about the fire danger.
Fires have burned hotter and faster than people expect, possibly because they expect colder weather to make a difference, Simmer said.
Several recent fires in the area have reportedly been related to dry conditions.
The Raymond Volunteer Fire Department responded to a ditch fire near the Kandiyohi County - Chippewa County line around 6:13 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Firefighters suspect a discarded cigarette ignited the dry grass in the ditch. Firefighters extinguished a blaze that ran about one-half mile of the ditch, according to Raymond Fire Chief Ardell Tensen.
It's definitely not the time of year when the department expects to battle grass fires, but there is no question that the grass is tinder dry and easily ignited, the chief noted.
A spark that escaped a burning barrel was blamed for a grass fire that sent firefighters to a rural residence about two miles north of Olivia at 1:22 p.m. Wednesday. Only a small area was burned, and firefighters were able to douse the blaze with shovels, according to the Renville County Sheriff's Office.
Dry conditions were blamed in separate incidents that sent the Sunburg and Kerkhoven and New London fire departments on calls Monday. A grass fire spread to the corner of a barn in a fire south of Sunburg. A spark from a burning pit ignited grass and briefly threatened a home near Mud Lake on County Road 9.
Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog said fires haven't caused major problems so far. It helps that farmers were able to clear their fields, he said, "so we won't be burning a corn field."
Simmer said burning permits will be required until an area has at least 3 inches of snow on the ground.
Fires that get out of hand present dangers to firefighters who are working in frigid conditions, and fighting them can be expensive, Simmer said.
"We just want to remind people to follow the existing regulations," he said.
Anyone who has a burning permit needs to call a toll-free number to get current conditions and hours when burning is allowed.
For more information about burning permits check the DNR website at www.dnr.state.mn.us