Michigan Wildfire Season: Slower than usual

State firefighters extinguished 170 wildfires by the start of June 2013. Photo: Dave Kenyon, Michigan DNR.

State firefighters extinguished 170 wildfires by the start of June 2013. Photo: Dave Kenyon, Michigan DNR.

By Howard Meyerson

Grand Rapids, Mich. — State forest fire fighters got some relief this spring. Persistent wet and cool weather reduced the fire hazard around the state. Although 170 wildfires were extinguished by the start of June, state forest officials say it’s been a slower than average year for wildfires.

“A good portion of the fire hazard this spring was low to moderate,” said Jim Fisher, Michigan Department of Natural Resources resource protection manager for the Lower Peninsula. “We had three to four stretches that were three to five days long where we had dry, warm weather; those are the times we worry about, but on a typical year we have many more than that.”

Spring wildfires burned a total of 534 acres. Lower Peninsula fires burned 415.1 acres, destroying 10 commercial, residential, or outbuilding structures. Upper Peninsula fires burned 119.1 acres and destroyed eight buildings.

By comparison, firefighters had their hands full in 2012. There were 495 wildfires on state land last year, according to state records. They burned 23,812 acres.

The largest of those was the Luce County, Duck Lake Fire in the Upper Peninsula. It alone burned 21,069 acres and was ignited by a lightning bolt on May 24, 2012. The fire destroyed 49 cabins and homes, one store, one motel, 23 garages, 38 sheds and outbuildings, and 26 campers. It was the third largest Michigan wildfire in the last 50 years, following the 25,000-acre, Mack Lake fire in 1980 and the 72,000-acre Seney fire in 1976.

Uncertain causes are responsible for 155 of the state wildfires last year, according to Fisher. Power lines caused 42 fires; lighting caused 39; equipment caused 51; and debris burning caused 117. Campfires were responsible for 34 wildfires.

“This year’s (fire prevention) campaign is embers,” said Ada Takacs, fire prevention specialist with the DNR. “Embers reignite from the wind. People need to make sure they are out.

“People become complacent when it greens up early and they haven’t heard of a lot of fires. They get out in their yard and burn debris or have a campfire at night. They need to have a plan to make sure those fires don’t get out of control.”

June is not typically a fire problem, Fisher noted. July and August are the months when the grasslands dry out.

“The National Weather Service said this should be a typical summer, average,” Fisher said. “We expect more fire activity late in the summer and will be watching for them.”

Fire-fighting staffing at the DNR is at its lowest point in 10 years, according to Fisher. The agency has 70 fire officers, compared to 140 in the 1960s and 1970s. That reduction combined with wet weather resulted in fewer prescribed burns being conducted on state land this spring for habitat restoration. Only 28 burns were staged on nearly 2,000 acres. The agency usually stages 80 burns on 8,000 acres annually.

Takacs said between 95 percent and 98 percent of the wildfires are caused by human activity of one kind or another. The upcoming Fourth of July holiday may present some challenges.

Changes in the law last year made it legal to buy and shoot off fireworks in Michigan. More citizens will do that, she said. They need to be thinking about where those will come down.

The growing popularity of Chinese lanterns is also a concern. The paper lanterns use a small key-light candle to warm the air and make them rise. The lanterns are carried on the wind.

“People want to think about what they are doing before they light off fireworks,” Takacs said. “We have also seen a lot of Chinese lanterns out there. You can buy them at the Dollar Store. With fireworks the powder burns out. They lanterns can float lit for very long time.”

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This story appears in Michigan Outdoor News

© 2013 Howard Meyerson

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