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Covered in smoke: Despite haze, slower day for wildfires Wednesday

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BEMIDJI – A cover of smoke wafted across Minnesota’s northern tier Wednesday as firefighters again battled wildland fires throughout the region.

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The stinky haze prompted dozens of phone calls to first responders in Bemidji and Beltrami County. By noon Wednesday, the Bemidji fire house had fielded about 35 calls about the smoke.

That resulted in several emails to media outlets in an effort to inform residents of the smoke’s origin.

“The smoke that is permeating the air in Beltrami County is coming from the wildfire that is raging across the north end of Beltrami County starting in the Fourtown area,” a statement from the Beltrami County Emergency Management Department stated Wednesday. It added that the fire started 100 miles northwest of Bemidji and is moving east/northeast.

The Beltrami County Nursing Service said residents encountering smoke or a visible haze should take precautions to reduce exposure.

“When smoke is present, individuals are encouraged to remain indoors and reduce activity levels,” the nursing service said, citing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Those with pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory problems, such as asthma, are particularly susceptible to increases in air pollution as are the elderly and children.”

People with asthmatic conditions or require oxygen assistance were instructed to keep windows closed and make arrangements to have extra oxygen on hand.

“You might want to think about temporarily moving to another location while the smoke is in our area,” the nursing service said.

Local response

The information campaign came on the heels of a coordinated effort to douse a fire Tuesday afternoon at a farm near Lake Planteganet in Hubbard County, a blaze that prompted city, county and state crews to temporarily evacuate some homes.

Residents in the area of Union Road on the Hubbard and Beltrami county line will see fire crews from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Bemidji Fire Department in the area, a statement Wednesday said. It emphasized that the measures were precautionary.

“We’ve had a quite a few resources down there making sure that doesn’t have the potential to jump up on us,” said DNR area supervisor Greg Nelson.

Nelson said Wednesday afternoon that, thanks to lower winds and higher humidity, it had been a much slower day compared to Tuesday, when there were at least four wildfires reported in the Bemidji area. He hopes that trend continues with precipitation in the forecast.

The National Weather Service forecasted rain and snow Wednesday night and into Thursday, and issued a winter storm warning for the area.

The forecast for Thursday called for highs in the upper 30s, with winds increasing to 24 to 29 mph in the afternoon. Snow is likely, with accumulation of 3 to 7 inches possible.

Nelson said the precipitation would be welcome before the weather warms up again next week. But, he said, it’s going to take a lot of rain to reverse the dry conditions because the soil tends to repel water once it becomes very dry.

“The nice thing about snow is that it holds that moisture there,” Nelson said. He hopes that the precipitation will allow fire crews to rest after a busy few days. The snow and rain could also knock down the smoke in the area.

“I don’t think Bemidji has had smoke like that in many years,” Nelson said, adding that poor visibility Wednesday made it difficult for their detection aircraft to spot potential fires. “It’s a little different experience for people, and it’s an unusual year, there’s no doubt about that.”

Continued fights

The DNR’s forestry division closed several roads late Tuesday for public safety reasons and to give firefighters unimpeded access in far northern Minnesota.

The North Minnie Fire near Fourtown, north of Lower Red Lake, grew at least four miles to the northeast with the strong winds and low humidity on Tuesday. According to news statements sent out Wednesday, the fire traveled about eight miles from its origin, prompting several forest road closures.

In addition, campers are being asked to leave the Faunce Campground and the Norris Campground as a precaution.

For more information about the closures, call the DNR’s forestry office in Baudette at (218) 634-2172

The DNR issued a press release Wednesday afternoon asking residents to be careful when operating machinery outdoors and be mindful of burning restrictions.

Nelson said that a ban on debris burning remains in place.

“If you see someone illegally burning, don’t just ignore it,” Nelson said. “Call 911 and let’s get it stopped.”

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