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National Guard called in to help fight Beltrami Island State Forest wildfire

BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST -- Gov. Mark Dayton has ordered the Minnesota National Guard to help in fighting a wildfire in the Beltrami Island State Forest.

The 500-acre wildfire broke out Wednesday as the result of of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prescribed burn meant to help manage brushlands, according to a release from the governor’s office.

Kristi Coughlon, a public information officer for the DNR, said that the fire started during a prescribed burn in the forest’s Moose River Wildlife Management Area. The blaze jumped a road meant as a border and traveled into the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is much drier than the Moose River portion of the forest.

Firefighters are making "good progress" in controlling the fire, which is burning in an area characterized by wet soils, sedge meadow and brushland, she said.

According to John Williams, northwest region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, DNR wildlife staff were conducting the burn in the Moose River Impoundment as part of standard habitat improvement efforts and had set backfires and prepped the area Tuesday.

The fire jumped Dick's Parkway and headed east into Red Lake WMA, creating a wildfire situation, Williams said. The area that's still burning also is a sedge meadow, he said.

There are no threats to structures or private property, and there have been no injuries or public safety issues because of the fire, which is burning to the north and east, Williams said.

"I'm hopeful for a very quick containment of the fire," he said.

No structures or private land are threatened, according to the release. Much of Beltrami Island State Forest is located in Lake of the Woods and Roseau counties.

Prescribed burns are conducted under a strict prescription of wind, temperature and relative humidity guidelines. Northwest Minnesota currently is in "Moderate Drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and fire danger is listed as "extreme."

Despite the dry conditions, DNR staff conducting Wednesday's burn had taken the necessary precautions for burning the wetland area, Williams said.

"The conditions were actually meeting the prescribed burn plan," Williams said. "The work they had done the day before showed fire behavior consistent with something they expected for the burn so everything was in prescription."

Given the conditions, the decision to conduct the burn was sound, he said.

"It's just one of these things that when you work with things like fire, we do the best to make sure we don't have any escapes and we're pretty good at that," Williams said. "But sometimes, there are times when it does (escape) and you have to jump on it.

"Right now, we're in that mode of taking care of this issue."

The Minnesota National Guard will provide two water-dropping helicopters, one able to dump 660 gallons of water at once, and another that can dump 2,000 gallons.

Fire danger in that portion of Beltrami County is “extreme,” according to the DNR’s website. The remaining areas of the county are listed in the “very high” fire danger category.

Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald contributed to this story.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

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