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Uncontained wildfire reaches 500 acres in northwest Minnesota

BEMIDJI, Minn. --A fire in north Hubbard County near Bemidji required the response of both air and ground crews and stretched to 500 acres Thursday evening.

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A "Fire Boss" aircraft dips into Lake Hattie for water on Thursday as crews battled a wildfire in the Lake Hattie Township region. Forum News Service photo.

BEMIDJI, Minn. --A fire in north Hubbard County near Bemidji  required the response of  both air and ground crews and stretched to 500 acres Thursday evening.

As of late Thursday, Christi Powers, public information officer with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, said the fire had not yet been contained and that work to extinguish it could extend into Friday.

"We have had multiple aircraft on the scene for upward of three hours. We just had the large air tanker release and smaller air tankers have been flying over," Powers said. "We have a Minnesota Incident Command System Team that's being reassigned from a fire over in Staples to the Lake Hattie fire, as we're calling it."

The fire was first reported at about 3 p.m. near Lake Hattie Township, about 25 miles southwest of Bemidji. After the fire was reported, Powers said fire crews were dispatched to the scene, with ground equipment also deployed.

"They're working very hard to put a fire line perimeter around it, but as wind conditions pick up, that becomes more difficult," Powers said. "No evacuations and no structures or homes are threatened at this point. We do need folks to know that it is a fast moving fire, though. It's jumped from containment lines and roads."

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As fire crews continue to respond, Powers said MIFC is asking people to observe critical fire danger weather and not to go to the fire's location.

"We do have multiple crews coming from different parts of the state to be at this fire," Powers said. "So we ask folks not to try and be onlookers. It's important that the public stay safe."

There are two air tankers in the state right now, and one of them is stationed in Bemidji for the time being, according to Powers. The tankers were also used in a fire Wednesday near Staples.

With dry, windy conditions sticking around the area and little precipitation in the forecast, emergency officials and weather experts are encouraging residents to be cautious with any open flame.

On Thursday, a "Red Flag Warning" was issued for northwest Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. The warning comes alongside the fire danger levels from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources set at "very high" and "extreme" for most of northwest Minnesota.

Because of these levels, burning permits have been restricted in Beltrami County and multiple other counties. However, campfires are still allowed.

"There's likely not going to be any burning permits allowed for a while, especially with the low humidity and very warm temperatures we've been having," said Christopher Muller, Beltrami County Emergency Management director. "Plus, there's only a slight chance of precipitation within the next week."

For southern Beltrami County, the level has been set at very high, meaning fires can start easily and spread fast. That level has also been issued across some northeast Minnesota counties along the Canadian border and northwest counties bordering North Dakota.

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A section of north Beltrami County, meanwhile, has been given an extreme fire danger level, meaning the fire situation is explosive and can result in property damage. That level extends into some northwest Minnesota counties bordering Canada.

The highest chance of precipitation will come Friday, according to the National Weather Service. The forecast has a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, but most of the day will be sunny with wind gusts as high as 22 miles per hour. The sunny conditions are expected to continue Saturday and Sunday.

Burning permit restrictions with campfires still allowed is also the approach the city of Bemidji is taking in the coming days, said Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer.

"We're not issuing any permits for debris burning, leaves, brush or that sort of thing," Hoefer said. "We're still allowing recreational fires or campfires, though."

For recreational fires, Hoefer said firewood must be cut in short lengths, the fire must be contained in an area not exceeding 36 inches in diameter, and it must be a minimum of 25 feet from structures or combustible items. Additionally, the fires must be constantly attended, and means to extinguish a fire must be readily available.

The Bemidji Fire Department has the authority to stop a recreational fire if it's not in compliance with city rules or is causing hazardous conditions.

"We're entering a pretty dangerous time right now with the conditions. As we enter the weekend, we want people to be cautious and safe," Hoefer said. "We've seen some good sized forest fires to the south of here and we have similar conditions, so we want people to be really careful."

One of the fires reported south of Bemidji occurred Wednesday evening northwest of Staples. The blaze kept firefighters on the scene for more than 5 hours, and burned about 100 acres of forest.

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Multiple, large fires are also being fought in Canada, Muller said, bringing the potential for hazy smoke to come to the area.

"People might smell smoke and see haze even though there may not be a fire close. If people see any flames, though, it has to be immediately reported," Muller said. "And even if you do have a recreational fire, make sure that it is properly extinguished. Even if it looks out, with the conditions we have, they can get rekindled."

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