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Peat fires pose rare winter challenge in northwest Minnesota

Peat fires can be a common occurrence during a dry Minnesota summer, but they're normally rare in the middle of the winter. This season may be an exception. The winter peat fire Dec. 26 near Gully, Minn., in Polk County, which was ignited by a su...

December Peat Fire
Crews battle a peat fire Dec. 26 near Gully, Minn. Peat fires typically aren't a problem in winter, but the lack of snowfall has greatly increased the risk in northwest Minnesota. (Minnesota DNR photo)

Peat fires can be a common occurrence during a dry Minnesota summer, but they're normally rare in the middle of the winter.

This season may be an exception.

The winter peat fire Dec. 26 near Gully, Minn., in Polk County, which was ignited by a surface fire in grass and brush, is an example of the increased challenges faced by the Department of Natural Resources and local firefighters. They battled cold, wintery conditions to control the fire before ultimately putting it out.

There have been several other wildfires that resulted in peat ignition in northwest Minnesota from fall through early January. That's a testament to the recent unusual weather conditions in Minnesota.

Flooding the burning peat, or using peat nozzles attached to a hose, are the most efficient and effective ways to extinguish a fire and the least disruptive to the area soils and vegetation. Flooding consists of building a dike around the fire and using large irrigation pipes to completely cover the ground in water. Peat nozzles, designed much like a metal garden wand, are inserted under the peat to shoot high-pressure streams of water into areas where the peat is burning underground.

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Battling winter peat fires by flooding or with peat nozzles can be difficult in freezing conditions. Water doesn't flow well when air temperatures are in the teens or single digits.

The Dec. 26 peat fire has been extinguished, but the area is being monitored by DNR foresters. Unchecked, peat fires have the potential to last for years during dry periods.

With little fall precipitation, warm temperatures and scarce snow cover, an unusual winter fire season is in progress. According to the Minnesota climatology office, "without ample, widespread precipitation in the late winter and early spring, the state will face deficient soil moisture supplies and low water levels in wetlands, lakes and rivers."

That could make for an eventful spring fire season.

Related Topics: FIRES
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