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Firefighters gain control of fire in Beltrami Island State Forest in northern Minnesota

BEMIDJI, Minn.—Firefighters continue to make progress in extinguishing a fire that broke out Wednesday in Beltrami Island State Forest after a prescribed burn in a swampy area jumped a road and spread into an adjacent wildlife management area.

The fire, which has burned about 458 acres, now is confined to small pockets within the burn area, Kristi Coughlon, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said Friday. About 39 firefighters, including DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and local contractors, have been working to contain the fire, she said.

Area DNR staff and local contractors are expected to take over mop-up and monitoring efforts Sunday or Monday, Coughlon said.

The Moose River West Fire, as it's called, broke out during a prescribed burn DNR wildlife staff were conducting in an impoundment on the Moose River Wildlife Management Area about 5 miles north of Fourtown.

DNR crews had set up firebreaks and taken other precautions the previous day to keep the prescribed burn within its boundary, but it jumped Dick's Parkway Forest Road and spread into Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, creating a wildfire situation as it burned in a northerly and easterly direction.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday, Aug. 23, ordered two National Guard helicopters, each capable of dropping hundreds of gallons of water, to the site of the fire to supplement firefighting efforts. Two water bomber planes from Ontario also made two drops Thursday but since have returned to Canada, Coughlon said.

Aerial support was on standby Friday to assist if needed, but firefighting efforts as of noon were limited to ground crews, Coughlon said. Weather-permitting, plans were in the works to fly the area Friday night and use infrared technology to check for hot spots that might not be visible during the day, she said.

Prescribed burns, a standard management tool to rejuvenate wildlife habitat, are conducted under a strict prescription based on temperature, wind speed and relative humidity. Conditions on Wednesday met all of the prescription criteria for burning in the area, which is characterized by wet sedge meadow and brushland, but the fire still jumped the forest road that formed the eastern boundary of the fire line and burned a narrow strip of similar habitat about 2 miles into the Red Lake WMA, Coughlon said.

The fire didn't threaten structures or private property, and no injuries or public safety issues were created from the fire, John Williams, northwest region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said Thursday.

Northwest Minnesota is in a "moderate drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and fire danger Thursday was listed as "extreme" on the DNR website. Higher humidity and scattered rainfall overnight had lowered that danger Friday to "high," two levels lower than the previous day.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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