Fire investigators have determined that the recent Palsburg Fire, which burned more than 4,500 acres of wild lands in Roseau County, originated from a slash pile the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) burned last fall. Slash is branches and other woody debris that remains after a logging operation.
“This shows us, that under current conditions, you can’t be too cautious,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “The state is very dry and we need to take extraordinary precautions with fire.”
Left by the logging operation in November, the DNR burned the slash pile Nov. 25 while the ground was snow-covered. Slash is burned as part of routine fire-prevention efforts and in preparing a harvested site for tree planting.
DNR foresters checked the burned pile in December, found some embers inside but determined they didn’t pose a problem because it was early winter.
Foresters checked the slash pile the week of March 16 and determined the fire was cold.
Almost five months after the pile was originally burned, on April 15, smoke was spotted in the area during a fire-detection flight.
Due to warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, the fire spread quickly. The active fire was controlled the next morning, but the Palsburg Fire burned 4,550 acres of mostly pine. No structures were lost or injuries reported. Nearly all the land was DNR-administered forest land; a small portion was tribal land.
Fire investigators, who are currently finalizing their reports, determined that an ember that stayed hot two feet underground in the original slash fire caused the wildfire. An extremely dry spring due to below normal snowfall and lack of rain added to the problem.
The DNR’s Forestry Division will pay the cost of putting out the Palsburg Fire, said the division’s director, Forrest Boe. “After fire investigations, parties responsible for starting a fire are held responsible for paying for fire suppression efforts. The responsible party here is the Division of Forestry,’’ Boe said.
A final cost has yet to be determined.
The DNR plans to ask an independent government agency, with relevant forestry expertise, to conduct a review of this incident. The independent reviewer hasn’t been determined yet
Boe said it is rare for a DNR-burned slash pile to cause a wildfire.
However, the unusual weather conditions, the lack of snowfall and low humidity have led to extreme fire conditions in northwestern Minnesota this spring. The DNR is on high alert when it comes to checking on extinguished fires and others should be as well.
Boe said the DNR will learn valuable lessons from this incident and will implement any new recommended practices immediately. He said he hopes to share those lessons with others in the forestry and fire-prevention community so that incidents like this don’t happen again.
Plans for salvage of the trees left from the Palsburg Fire have already begun. Merchantable trees will be sold for forest products.