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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published May 15 2013

Weather conditions ripe for fires in ND, Upper Midwest

BISMARCK – A National Weather Service map of North Dakota is covered in red, the color that indicates extreme fire danger.

The weather service has issued a red-flag warning for most of North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and eastern Nebraska, which means weather conditions conducive to fires are either occurring or will shortly because of a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures.

Corey King, an emergency response specialist with the weather service, said the agency issues the warnings after considering the three large hazards in a weighted formula.

“The delay in greenup in many areas due to the cold temps we had in April is one of the factors that goes into it,” he said. “The strong winds behind the cold front increased the fire danger, too.”

Even though temperatures were cooler Tuesday than Monday, the fire danger increased.

On Tuesday, the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services joined the weather service to raise the state’s fire danger warning from very high Monday to extreme, which says critical burning conditions exist due to dry and hot weather.

The weather service said the extreme fire danger was across the state as winds ranged from 35 mph to 50 mph and temperatures ranged from the 70s in the northwest to 85 in the southeast.

The weather service in Aberdeen, S.D., said average temperatures in the northeastern part of that state hit 91 Tuesday with an average wind speed of 30 mph.

Temperatures hit the lower 90s in Sioux Falls in southeast South Dakota and a record-high 106 in Sioux City, Iowa.

Rainfall was in short supply last year in the Dakotas and while winter snows have improved soil moisture across much of the region, a May 7 U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that 45 percent of North Dakota is still abnormally to moderately dry.

Cecily Fong, public information officer for North Dakota’s Department of Emergency Services, said the primary goal now is to ensure everyone is aware of the fire danger and that people contact the local emergency manager before burning.

A list of all local emergency managers can be found on the department’s website, www.nd.gov/des.

“Everyone needs to pay attention to the forecast and stay informed,” she said. “The last thing we want is somebody who didn’t know there was a burn ban in place and pretty soon we have a raging fire.”

By Tuesday afternoon, 27 counties had declared some sort of burn restrictions and fire declarations.

In the west, a burn ban in Billings County continues since it was issued last fall after the county had many fires.

Billings County Emergency Manager Pat Rummel said when the fire index is high, very high or extreme, the county asks that residents not travel off surface roadways, industrial crews and farmers have fire extinguishers and workers remain on site a half-hour after their job is done.

Like most of the state, he said the thick grass in some areas draws the most concern.

“A couple years ago, we had a lot of moisture so a lot of growth, which created a lot of fuel for the fires last year,” he said. “The grass is still thick in spots and the dry, warm air and wind is really hazardous, it could go quite quickly.”

Cass County issued its first temporary burn ban of the year, according to Sgt. Tara Morris, public information officer for the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

Morris highlighted county commission policies that require the sheriff to consult with local fire officials from around Cass County on whether conditions are unsafe for open fires, before the burn ban can be issued.

She said the determination also factors in the weather service’s red-flag warning.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how things look,” she said about when the ban will be removed. “Low relative humidity was the key phrase we kept hearing from the National Weather Service.”