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Fire safety urged in southwest Minnesota as dry conditions, high winds prevail

“Many things can ignite. Be mindful that it could happen to you as well as anyone else.”

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Worthington Fire Department truck, winter 2022. Tim Middagh / The Globe
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WORTHINGTON — With drought conditions expanding and autumn bringing high winds and dry foliage to southwest Minnesota, the fire risk has also increased, leading local and state officials to warn the public to be careful.

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A Red Flag Warning means the area is experiencing weather conditions that are ideal for wildfire

“Common sense goes a long way in fire safety practices,” said Pat Shorter, chief of the Worthington Fire Department. “Many things can ignite. Be mindful that it could happen to you as well as anyone else.”

Water resources can be very limited in rural settings, with no hydrants to draw from, and given the drought, creeks and lakes may not be viable water sources for firefighters either. Those conditions can hinder firefighters’ ability to combat fires when they do occur.

The National Weather Service issued Red Flag Warnings Wednesday and Thursday this week, even as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources responded to the deepening drought with measures including encouraging all Minnesotans to conserve water.

The Red Flag Warning means the area’s weather conditions are ideal for wildfire, including strong winds, warm temperatures and minimal humidity.

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“Any spark could become a wildfire under Red Flag conditions,” said Allissa Reynolds, DNR wildfire prevention supervisor.

Field fire near Reading

“Fields are extremely dry,” said Steve Joens, chief of the Wilmont Fire Department. “There’s a lot of fuel load out there, with all the crop residue being so dry.”

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Joens and his firefighters saw the results of the dry conditions on Tuesday afternoon when they were called to a combine and field on fire in the Reading area, with Brewster Fire Department arriving to render mutual aid.

It was a small fire that originated from the combine, though the machinery was extinguished with minimal damage before firefighters arrived on the scene to put out the fire in the fields. About 2 or 3 acres of the corn field were damaged, as well as 4 or 5 acres of a neighboring bean field.

Around 15 firefighters were on the scene, with seven trucks, plus five law enforcement personnel and five or six neighbors who came to help.

“Good fire prevention is always keeping everything clean and things cool so it doesn’t start a fire,” Joens said, encouraging people to maintain their machinery well to avoid starting fires.

Illegal burning near Rushmore

Nobles County Sheriff Ryan Kruger emphasized the importance of being aware of conditions when intentionally burning materials, too. Typically those who intend to burn something must have a burn permit, which is free and can be obtained at the Prairie Justice Center. In addition, someone intending to burn must call in before and after a controlled burn is over.

“That way our deputies know. If they’re out somewhere and they see a big brush fire going on, they can look and say ‘Yes, someone’s got a burning permit,’” Kruger said.

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On Thursday, Nobles County had a burn ban, due to the wind and dry conditions.

On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of illegal burning in the Rushmore area, which turned out to be someone burning trash.

While people can be cited for illegal burning, and potentially also for attempting to burn prohibited materials like tires, often the sheriff’s office starts out by educating the would-be fire starter instead.

What to do

Shorter, like Joens, emphasized the importance of keeping machinery clean of debris and combustible materials.

“Obviously, around hot exhausts everything’s very turbo-charged when it operates at high temperature,” he said.

People also need to be mindful about where they’re parking, and that goes not just for tractors and combines but for cars and motorcycles too, because parking near a ditch filled with dry grass could easily start a fire. Motorists should ensure no fluid or oil leaks from their vehicles.

Smoking, too, has caused many fires, both in cities and outside them.

Those in the agricultural sector should carry fire extinguishers, both in their personal vehicles and in any equipment that they’re driving, Shorter said.

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If involved in a fire, it helps to be mindful of the wind direction, in order to escape it, and it’s also important to always call emergency services even if the fire has apparently gone out. Fires can reignite even five to eight days after they appear to be out.

“If you are questioning whether it is an out-of-control fire, you should call it in,” Shorter said.

A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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