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Dry conditions envelop Bemidji, area: lack of rain brings added fire danger

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BEMIDJI -- A large portion of Beltrami County has been listed under moderate drought conditions this week as Bemidji and surrounding areas experience little rainfall and high temperatures that bring an increased risk for wildfires.

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has already identified Bemidji as being a city with the highest fire potential in the state.

The latest update by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows 80 percent of Minnesota as abnormally dry, with another 10 percent under a moderate drought. Bemidji is on the cusp of those two conditions and, according to local officials, is more likely to fall under the latter designation.

"Bemidji is very dry right now," Tom Fasteland, coordinator for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, said. "I don't believe it has had rain for quite awhile and the rain it did get was very little."

That rainfall, as calculated by the National Weather Service, totaled only an inch and a half between July 1 and Friday -- almost five inches less than the projected normal August rainfall of 6.32 inches.

The weather service contributes the loss to two factors: A change in atmospheric flows from the south to the northwest, preventing the flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to the northern region, and late crops.

"Farming brings the moisture up from the soil and releases it into the air," said Jim Kaiser, meteorologist with the weather service's Grand Forks, N.D., office. "But, with the prolonged melt and late growing season, many crops have been slow-growing or are farmers are already harvesting them to prevent losing the crop entirely."

The combined effect is a heightened chance of wildfires.

"The last few weeks, the local area (DNR) has been ramping up its staffing levels and has been watching for the increased chances for wildfires," Bemidji DNR Forester Jon Drimel said. "There have been a few fires out west and some people have been helping out with those. We also have people on call at night in case something happens."

Depending on how weekend weather plays out, those calls could be avoided.

The weather service says Bemidji could see scattered and isolated showers and storms throughout Saturday and Sunday, with highs in the mid-80s and low-90s. Those storms, likely to take place overnight in four- to six-hour periods, add the risk of ignition by lightning. Monday night into Tuesday also hold the potential for isolated showers.

If dry conditions continue despite rainfall potential, the state's Interagency Fire Center has the ability to place restrictions on campfires or cancel burning permits.

"This is a really key weekend," Fasteland said. "We'll see how widespread and how much rain we'll get."

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