Confirming a rumor that has been swirling in recent days, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Friday a slash pile DNR foresters lit last November started the Palsburg Fire, which burned more than 4,500 acres of timber last week in Beltrami Island State Forest south of Warroad, Minn.
The fire started April 15 near the Palsburg Forest Road in Roseau County and quickly spread, driven by strong south winds. No injuries or property damage resulted from the fire.
In a conference call Friday afternoon from Warroad, where he was touring the site of the burn, Forestry Division Director Forrest Boe said DNR investigators had traced the fire to a slash pile that remained after a logging operation last fall on state forest lands.
Slash includes branches and other debris, and piling the material and burning it is standard DNR practice, Boe said. Depending on the site, slash piles can be 10 feet to 15 feet high and more than 20 feet around, he said.
"Slash is burned as part of our routine forest management efforts, and we do that in order to prevent fires, so that those slash piles are burned on our time rather than someone burning at a different time when we don't want it burned," Boe said. "It also helps prepare the site for tree planting in the future."
Boe said DNR Forestry personnel ignited the slash pile that started last week's blaze Nov. 25. Foresters checked the pile again in December and found embers but determined they didn't pose a problem because it was winter. A subsequent check March 16 determined the fire was cold.
Then came the hot, dry, windy conditions of April 15, which fanned up a spark that had lingered nearly five months. A DNR detection plane spotted the fire that afternoon.
"We had people checking it and actually determined (the fire) to be out cold," Boe said. "In this particular case, the fire had kind of gone underground."
Boe said the DNR is taking extra precautions to check other slash piles in the forest and getting heavy equipment onsite if necessary. He said no disciplinary action or other repercussions are planned for the workers who lit the slash pile.
"Our employees were really acting in the scope of their duties," he said. "This is routine to burn these piles, get rid of the slash that's out there so that these sites can be prepared for harvest. Again, we want to do that under our timelines when we think it is safe.
"That's why we burned this in November."
Calling the fire a "very unfortunate incident," Boe said the DNR Division of Forestry will pay the cost of putting out the fire, which he estimates will be "somewhere between a couple hundred thousand and a few hundred thousand" dollars.
The money will come from DNR forest management funds, he said.
"Our practice is to really look at the parties that are responsible for starting a fire and hold them responsible for paying for the fire suppression efforts," Boe said. "In this case, it was us."
Review on tap
Boe said it's rare for a DNR-burned slash pile to cause a wildfire, but he said the agency plans to ask outside experts - perhaps another government agency or a national association of state foresters - to conduct an independent review of the incident.
No timetable for that review has been set, he said.
"I think there are things we can learn from this," Boe said. "These are extreme conditions and maybe what we've done in the past - our standard protocols of lighting these piles in November or December and then checking on them periodically - maybe that isn't enough."
State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said he also will be asking questions at the Legislature about the cause of the fire, which he described as a difficult, highly unusual situation. Fabian is vice chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
"I've never heard of this before," Fabian said of a fire smoldering nearly five months. "The Forestry guys we have in northwest Minnesota are great guys, and there's no intent in any of this. I can't imagine how bad the guys who are in charge of the area must feel as a result of this. I feel very bad for them.
"I'm sure they're carrying a heavy burden, and sometimes, bad things happen."
With the fire now contained, Boe said foresters will begin the process of reappraising the timber in the fire to determine what can be salvaged and will hold a timber auction in May.
The Palsburg Fire, he says, has been "a tough learning experience."
"Again, you can never really be too cautious with fires," Boe said. "Our fire here is a prime example of that."