Fire Danger

John Meyers wrote this for the Duluth News Tribune on Friday, August 17th, 2007. 

Northland’s Fire Danger enters record levels

The Northland’s worsening, 14-month drought has pushed U.S. Forest Service fire danger indices into record territory for northern Minnesota , more than double historic averages.


State and federal wildfire experts use two formulas to determine how dry the forest is and how likely it is to burn.


The Drought Code measures moisture in the first 8 inches of surface soil. When the ground is saturated, the code is zero. Over the past six years, the code has averaged 242 in August, usually a dry month, in the Superior National Forest . The highest previously recorded for August was 383. This week in Cook County , the index hit 600.  “You don’t want to be above 300 at all.  We’re making new records now every day… and our data goes back to 1970.” said Ellen Bogardus-Syzmaniak, fire expert for the Superior and Chippewa National Forests .


The drought of 2006-07 is worse than 1976, the year often cited as the worst drought in the past half-century.


This may be the worst drought since the 1930s, although fire danger index data doesn’t go back that far.


“We’re beyond 1995 [another major fire year] and beyond 1976 now, no question,’’ Bogardus-Syzmaniak said.


The other measure, called the Buildup Index, has averaged 39 in August over the past decade. The highest ever recorded before this year in northern Minnesota was 69.


This week at the Seagull Guard Station near the end of the Gunflint Trail the index hit 131.


“Anything over 90, and really strange fire things start to happen. It’s getting very gnarly,’’ Bogardus-Syzmaniak said. “When it’s this low it means marshes are dry, lakes are way low and streams are running dry or low. It means everything is being affected by the drought.’’


This index takes into account any light rain or even dew that might help briefly reduce fire danger. But there has been little of either this summer.


National Weather Service records in Duluth show the city is now a foot below normal for precipitation since June 1, 2006. More than halfway through August, Duluth has received less than two-tenths of an inch of rain. Some areas of the Arrowhead and Northwestern Wisconsin have even deeper moisture deficits over longer periods.


Meanwhile Thursday, state officials said the almost total ban on outdoor fires in St. Louis, Cook and Lake Counties does not include incorporated cities or townships. Fires in cities and towns will remain regulated by local laws, said Carson Berglund, spokesman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids .


The Duluth Fire Department announced a citywide burning ban Thursday, effective beginning at 8 a.m. today.


Under the Duluth ban, no open burning permits will be issued and any permits already issued will be suspended. Campfires, recreational fires and charcoal fires on public and private property are prohibited, as well as the use of welding and acetylene torches, except with authorization.


The ban in the three counties also takes effect at 8 a.m. today and makes it illegal to have any recreational fire, campfire, charcoal grill or fire, torches, welders, brush pile fires, burn barrel or other open flame anywhere in the three counties — except in municipalities that have not enacted their own bans.


Recreational fires are allowed at campgrounds and residences within one mile of Lake Superior between 6 p.m. and midnight.


“We don’t want to ruin people’s fun. But we can’t have any open flame anywhere in the woods right now. No charcoal, no fires period,’’ Berglund said. “Propane stoves are still OK for cooking.’’


The fire ban includes private land, state and county land and federal land in the three counties and will be strictly enforced with citations, officials said.


An out-of-control campfire is blamed for starting the Ham Lake fire on the Gunflint Trail in May, the state’s largest and most expensive wildfire since 1918. Federal prosecutors are weighing evidence in deciding whether to seek damages or criminal prosecution against a party believed responsible for that fire.


Wisconsin officials are expected to tighten fire restrictions in coming days.