ST. PAUL — A drier-than-normal start to summer in Minnesota looks likely to continue just as fire crews would normally be gearing up to take out-of-state wildfire calls.
The spring fire season, which in Minnesota typically concludes in June each year, came to an end but "was joined with a summer fire season, if you will," Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Leanne Langeberg said. Firefighters in Minnesota have their attention trained on in-state fires as a result, she said, at least for now.
"It's kind of a dynamic year with the amount of drought that's upon us from California, the out west region, even to here in Minnesota," Langeberg said in an interview. "We're under some of our very own drought concerns that have been lingering with that, really since last fall."
As Western states endure their most expansive and severe dry spell in a century — with more than 90% of the region in a drought that continues to intensify, according to a recent report by the National Weather Service — moderate drought conditions in Minnesota show few signs of abating. The weather service predicts that Minnesota will be "below average for precipitation through the next two week period ... as well as the three-to-four week period, which would take us through the end of the month," National Weather Service meteorologist Melissa Dye said in an interview.
That below-average forecast overlaps with a time of year when Western states and others begin to call on their neighbors for wildfire backup, according to Langeberg.
"We tend to see national needs rise starting in mid-July and continuing through September and even October as there are more states in higher fire danger, especially out West," Langeberg said.
At least 20 firefighters across all local, state, federal and tribal agencies active in Minnesota have been sent out of state in 2021 so far, according to Langeberg. The DNR could not immediately say how many out-of-state dispatches occurred at this point in previous years.
But over the past eight years, according to DNR statistics, anywhere from 375 to 1,200 firefighters in Minnesota have been assigned annually to out-of-state wildfire responses. A total of 575 were sent out in 2020 alone, according to an annual report from the Minnesota Interagency Coordination Center, several of whom travelled as far as Australia.
Across northern Minnesota, meanwhile, the DNR reports that high levels of fire danger persist, meaning the conditions are ripe for fires to start and spread easily. Burning restrictions remain in effect in an even larger swath of the state, which has seen 35,000 acres burn in a combined 14,000 wildfires since March of this year.
"We're well beyond a typical fire season," DNR Fire Prevention Supervisor Casey McCoy said in an interview.
As in years past, Minnesota in 2021 has called on out-of-state fire crews to support its own wildfire suppression efforts, though the DNR could not immediately say if more have been brought in than is typical. States only send what resources they can spare as they combat fires of their own and, in turn, only ask for out-of-state help when fires exceed what they can muster within their borders.
Langeberg said engines and personnel from seven states — Maine, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana — have so far been sent to Minnesota, though she could not say how many. DNR Wildfire Section Manager Paul Lundgren told KARE 11 in Minneapolis last week that there were 12 engines and corresponding crews in Minnesota at the time.
Counties currently under burning restrictions include Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Morrison, Todd, and Wadena counties.