​​Wildfires: Preventable, not inevitable

Oct. 25, 2021

Superior National Forest during the Greenwood Fire.
Photo credit: Superior National Forest during the Greenwood Fire.

If you felt there were a lot more wildfires than usual in Minnesota this year, you were right. Minnesota experienced one of its more active wildfire seasons in recent history. And although droughts create the perfect conditions for wildfires to flourish, the fact is that almost 90 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. ​are caused by people – and that makes them preventable.

The Minnesota Incident Command System recorded 17 wildfires between March and October 2021. If you weren't directly involved in one, the wildfire you probably heard most about (and maybe even inhaled smoke from) was the Greenwood Fire in northeast Minnesota, which forced evacuations and briefly closed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

It certainly didn't help that we also experienced a severe drought this year. It brought burning restrictions, receding lakes and rivers, and brittle vegetation. Some parts of the state have since seen recent rain and cooler temperatures, but without plenty of rain and snow this fall and winter, we could have the very same prime wildfire conditions this spring.

That means it's up to us to prevent them. You might think of wildfires as being caused by unattended campfires, but there are other causes you may not think about. Here are some other ways humans cause wildfires:

  • Parking vehicles on vegetation, such as grass.
  • Burning debris, such as trash or leaves.
  • Using mowing or other equipment improperly.
  • Poorly maintaining tires and chains, which can spark vegetation fires along roadways.
  • Improperly disposing of cigarettes, such as tossing them from a moving car into a ditch.

As we build more homes in the woods and next to the fields of Minnesota, we put both our homes and the wildlands at risk. Homes near evergreens, prairies and marshes are particularly prone to wildfires. That means existing firefighter resources are stretching thin – indeed most fire departments in Minnesota are staffed by volunteers.

You can prevent fires and conserve resources by avoiding the behaviors above and preparing your property now for potential drought and fire dangers in the spring. Start by maintaining a fire-resistant zone of 30 feet around your property. Get rid of dead or dry vegetation before winter by raking up fallen leaves; pulling dead bushes, plants, and trees; and properly storing combustible materials and equipment.

Next, gather up all your important personal documents and either scan them into a password-protected cloud or store them in a fire safe. While you're at it, make sure your insurance policies are up-to-date with appropriate coverage.

Then create an evacuation plan and practice it with everyone who lives in your house. Put together an evacuation kit and store it somewhere near the door, such as an entryway closet. Because wildfires spread so quickly, you won't have time to gather the things you need if you receive an evacuation notice. And in our current COVID state of being, don't forget masks and hand sanitizer.

The dangers created by drought seem insurmountable, but there's a lot you can do to prevent and prepare for fires. If we can be the reason wildfires start, we can be the reason they don't start, too.