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After big grass fire, a burn ban

The day after more than 1,000 acres went up in flames south of Manvel, N.D., Grand Forks County imposed a burn ban. It's the first in the Red River Valley this year. "Anytime it's abnormally dry and we feel there's a threat to lives and property,...

The day after more than 1,000 acres went up in flames south of Manvel, N.D., Grand Forks County imposed a burn ban.

It's the first in the Red River Valley this year.

"Anytime it's abnormally dry and we feel there's a threat to lives and property, we put a burning ban in place," said emergency manager Jim Campbell on Friday. He said conditions were the same Friday as on Thursday, when a controlled burn got out of control.

Which raises a question: Why was there not a burn ban on both days?

The fire, Campbell said, "demonstrated the fact that it would be prudent to put a burn ban on in Grand Forks County."

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There is no clear threshold for when to impose a burn ban. Dry conditions and strong winds play a part, he said, but how dry is too dry and how windy too windy is a matter of "common sense."

Rural fire chiefs and the emergency manager or the sheriff's office can start the discussion on whether a ban on open outdoor fires is needed. Their concurrence, along with a signature from a county commissioner can activate a ban.

Failure to observe a ban carries a penalty of $500 for a first offense and, on a second offense, as many as 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Strong winds Thursday caused the conflagration that threatened some 30 homes along County Road 5. Five different fire departments responded, along with Altru's ambulance and the sheriff's office. Farmers were clearing some land that was leaving the Conservation Reserve Program when the fire spread to other fields. No one was fined because there was no ban in place.

Contrary to human observation, though, Thursday actually was different from Friday.

There was some cloud cover over the area Thursday and the air had more moisture in it, according the National Weather Service's instruments. The agency issued Friday a "red flag" warning indicating extreme fire danger but there was no such alert Thursday.

The threshold, said NWS meteorologist Bill Barrett, is if relative humidity dips below 20 percent and sustained wind exceeds 25 mph.

Research shows that, in this region, that's when it gets dangerous, he said. In moister regions, such as Florida, relative humidity could be 30 percent and still be a problem, he said.

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Relative humidity is the amount of moisture air could hold at a certain temperature. Twenty percent is very dry.

A red flag warning also is influenced by any fires that local authorities report, Barrett said.

Presently, there are burn bans in most of western North Dakota. In some central counties, local authorities rescinded their bans. In most of northwest Minnesota, burning is allowed only by special permits.

The NWS raised red flags until 9 p.m. Friday in most counties in the northern two-thirds of the state. There are no red flags in Minnesota.

Campbell said the county likely would lift the burn ban once there's some rain over the area.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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