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Grass fire torches nearly 200 acres of CRP land near Sunburg

Firefighters refuel Wednesday while fighting a stubborn blaze that tore through 150 to 200 acres of tall grassland in a hilly, secluded area northeast of Sunburg in northern Kandiyohi County. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

SUNBURG -- A brush fire that got out of control roared across rolling hills of tinder-dry prairie grass and trees Wednesday afternoon in a secluded area northeast of Sunburg.

It's estimated that 150 to 200 acres of land that was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program was burned in the quick-moving fire that jumped the property lines of several neighbors.

No structures were destroyed and no one was injured.

Firefighters from four area fire departments -- Sunburg, New London, Brooten and Willmar -- were called to the fire around 1:45 p.m.

When they arrived, the fire wasn't that big, said Sunburg Fire Chief Mike Gjerde.

But wind gusts of 10 to 15 mph fanned the flames up the hills, feeding off 3- to 4-foot tall prairie grasses and native flower stems that had become extremely dry because of the lack of fall rains or winter snow.

The fire transitioned from "being pretty small to being pretty big" in a matter of minutes, Gjerde said.

The fire started when property owners, who reportedly live in Willmar, were burning brush on their property along 285th Avenue Northwest in the far northwestern corner of Kandiyohi County.

Gjerde said the property owners had a water supply to keep the controlled fire in check, but the mechanism froze in the cool temperatures and they were left defenseless.

With plenty of fuel nearby, the fire expanded and grew out of control.

The grass is "tinder dry and it didn't take long to start," Gjerde said.

Firefighters had a difficult time getting to the blaze to fight it.

The large tankers were driven down a prairie road and stayed parked near the middle of the long burn zone.

Fire departments fueled up their grass rigs and pickups from the tankers and then zipped across country to douse the flames.

Two brand new all-terrain vehicles the Willmar Fire Department received this year through donations from Willmar area churches were used for the first time to help battle the blaze.

The terrain made it challenging, said Darin Pierce, Sunburg fire captain. "It's tough with all those big hills," he said.

While the fire may not have harmed the grassland, which had pockets of wetlands, wood duck houses and other wildlife enhancements in the low areas and a newly planted grove of young trees was scorched in the blaze.

The fire also moved into groves of large mature trees, although they may have escaped permanent harm.

Gjerde said crews worked until nearly 6 p.m. Wednesday to put out hotspots that were smoldering in the trees out of concerns that winds would increase during the night and reignite the fire.

Because there was 1,000 acres more CRP land to the west of the fire site, crews intentionally burned about five acres as a preventative measure to protect the additional land.

Gjerde said in light of the extremely dry conditions, people should be very cautious about burning outdoors.

Fighting a grass fire in February is quite unusual. But Gjerde said if it doesn't rain or snow soon, there will be a lot more grass fires this year.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750