Rural Carlton wildfire blamed on cigarette
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
An errant cigarette appears to have sparked a wildfire in rural Carlton that burned close to seven acres Monday.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Scott Staples said a person at a mobile home on one edge of the fire was cited for “careless or negligent act that resulted in a fire.”
“They told me they were cleaning up the place for a friend and carried a couch out to a burn pit in the back yard and a cigarette dropped and caught the couch on fire,” Staples said, noting that the burn pit contained a number of other items that are illegal to burn, including furniture and trash.
The fire started about a block away from the intersection of County Roads 103 and 4. Traffic was reduced to one lane on County Road 4 for at least an hour.
Firefighters responded from Blackhoof, Wrenshall, Carlton, Mahtowa and the Fond du Lac wildfire suppression unit. Blackhoof Fire Chief Royce Lattu said it took the combined forces about an hour to get the fire under control.
“It was heading for a trailer house, but we stopped it before it got there, and it came pretty close to another home on County Road 4,” Lattu said.
Before this week’s rain, the DNR listed fire danger Monday as “moderate” in the Arrowhead region and “high” in other parts of Minnesota. All brush pile burning now requires a burning permit from the DNR, which may be denied if conditions are dry. Burn permits are required all year, except when there are three or more inches of snow on the ground, Staples said, when people want to burn untreated wood, brush piles, leaves, etc.
Fire danger in Minnesota and Wisconsin is high each spring until leaves and grasses sprout new green growth. After the last snow melts, the previous year’s dead weeds and leaves make perfect tinder for fires to start, while hot, windy days make fires more likely to spread.
“When a fire takes off, it can get severe pretty fast,” Lattu said.
This year’s fire season arrived a couple of weeks earlier than usual thanks to the rapid snowmelt. But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be any worse or last any longer. The national Climate Prediction Center has the Northland in the middle of a higher than average chance for above-normal precipitation for the next 10 days.
Lattu said the recent rain is helping, but warned that people should remain cautious.
“It’s really dry,” he said. “As soon as the sun comes out, it will take a couple hours and we’ll be right back to where we were,” he said. “We had such a dry winter, there’s not a lot of moisture in the ground. And we didn’t get enough snow to knock the grass down this year.”
Staples said people should be extra careful when they’re burning, even if they have a permit. A wildfire doesn’t just affect the environment, it can also hit a person hard in the pocketbook.
“If a person is convicted of something like burning trash, it can get very spendy, very quickly,” Staples said. “They have a fine, but then they’re also charged for the fire suppression itself: the trucks, the firefighters. Fire departments will bill the DNR by the hour and then the DNR will pass those charges along [to the responsible party].”
Experts say that spring green up, usually a May event in the Northland, will happen earlier if the temperatures stay high.
While the amount of daylight is the key to plants turning green, temperature does have a role.
“When it gets this warm for this long, the trees will bud early. They will try to catch up to the [temperatures]. Just about everything will move up, wildflowers especially. Nearly the same thing happened in 2010,” said Larry Weber, a phenology and nature expert who lives in Carlton County.
Weber said some wildlife will follow the temperatures, including red-winged blackbirds that arrived at his house 10 days earlier than normal this year.
“We could also have more ticks and mosquitoes this summer, mostly due to the mild winter,” he said. “And I think we’ll see a lot of insects hatching early.”
Weber is a bit worried about frogs, guessing they are now about to hatch but could get caught in any cold snap if temperatures return to normal.
Staples said he expects restrictions on burning in Carlton County to be implemented March 26, which would mean burning permits would likely not be issued until greenup.
The temperature soared to 72 degrees at Duluth International Airport on Monday, breaking another daily high record (although it remained in the upper 40s at the harbor). International Falls hit 78, also a new record, and it hit 80 in Ashland for the second time this month.
Duluth set four all-time record high daily temperatures between March 14 and 20, while International Falls set nine in10 days, including a record 79 on Sunday. That’s the warmest March temperature ever recorded in the Nation’s Icebox (and, according to Weather Underground, was four degrees warmer than Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.)
The sun and warm temperatures were too much for Spirit Mountain Ski Area in Duluth, which closed its ski hill at 5 p.m. Monday for the season.
Temperatures were falling back into the 50s for highs in the Twin Ports as the work week ended — cooler than earlier this week but still 12-15 degrees above normal.
The Climate Prediction Center is showing a gradual end to our off-the-charts warm period. While temperatures are expected to remain above normal through the 30-day outlook, the center’s outlook for April-May-June shows no variation from normal for the Northland.
Last year was a stark reminder that trends for one season don’t necessarily hold over to the next. After a cooler than normal March-May, especially near Lake Superior, every month since last July has been warmer than normal.
The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this report.