MENTOR, Minn. — A 10,000-acre prairie fire that shut down a portion of Highway 2 on Monday continued to burn into Tuesday, March 30.
Tuesday morning, crews were still assessing the damage that occurred overnight, but firefighters' focus was expected to be on the fire's eastern edge, which was approaching the city limits of Mentor, Minn.
Minnesota Interagency Fire Center spokesperson Leanne Langeberg said that the most recent estimates placed the blaze, dubbed the Oxcart Fire, about a mile and a half from the edge of Mentor, a town of about 230 people 24 miles east of Crookston.
According to the Polk County Sheriff's Office, as many as 15,000 acres altogether had been consumed by the fire as of Tuesday morning. One outbuilding, farm equipment and hay bales were reportedly destroyed by the fire, but no life-threatening injuries have been reported, according to the release.
Minnesota Incident Command Team A, which is comprised of local, state and federal responders, was expected to take over the scene Tuesday afternoon. The incident command team was called in to take pressure off local fire departments. Langeberg said that in addition to state agencies, 12 local fire departments responded to the fire, and upward of 50 firefighters worked the fire on the ground and in the air on Monday.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, although it was exacerbated by moderate drought conditions and strong winds on Monday, Langeberg said. The fire is primarily burning in the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, which consists mostly of highly flammable grasslands. Much of the state is currently under a Red Flag warning, which signifies high fire danger.
While the fire is severe, it's not an uncommon occurrence in northern Minnesota, Langeberg said. She compared conditions this spring to those seen in 2012.
"To have a fire reach this size may not be as common every year, but certainly it's not unexpected to happen in Minnesota, with the types of vegetation that we have, and there's times when we can get into drought conditions," Langeberg said. "It all comes together with weather and wind, and drying conditions that occur on those bright, sunny days."
On Monday, the Oxcart Fire shut down a stretch of Highway 2 due to poor visibility. As of Tuesday, all roads remained open, although Langeberg said the incident command team will work with the Polk County Sheriff's Office and other local agencies to communicate with the public should road or safety conditions change.
"The folks are incredible. They do really great work, and they're dedicated to public safety," she said. "So we ask that everyone in the local community, whether you're living in the area or commuting through to just be cautious. If you see any smoke in the air as you get closer to the area, just practice safe driving and we'll continue to focus on suppressing the fire."
The Oxcart Fire is one of several that have burned throughout the region in recent days: Residents of Gully, Minn., had their own close encounter with a grass fire last week, a grass fire near the Grand Forks International Airport over the weekend is said to have been sparked by gunfire, and a grass fire northeast of Hayes Lake State Park in Roseau County grew from 10 acres to 60 acres Monday.
Also, several residents of the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota were ordered to evacuate their homes and go to the Fort Totten Recreation Center on Monday afternoon as fire crews battled a large fire in the area, according to a post on the Spirit Lake Fire Department's Facebook page. The evacuation order was lifted early Tuesday morning, but residents were urged to be ready to evacuate should another order be issued.
The Spirit Lake Fire Department also posted Monday that the fire was one of several they have been called to recently, and asked anyone with knowledge of possible arson to reach out to the department at 800-472-7766.