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Categorized | Featured, Outdoors

Caution can help prevent human-caused wildfires

This stand of trees near Lake Superior was severely damaged during a wildfire.

By Kelsey Block, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

It was a snowy day near Grayling in March, 1990. A homeowner had recently cleared a section of land and planned to burn the resulting brush piles. Logs and branches were piled high, ignited and monitored. The large piles smoked and smoldered for a few weeks before putting themselves out. All seemed well.

A month later, the fires rekindled and, again, seemed to burn themselves out.

Three weeks later, a neighbor noticed the stubborn piles were burning again. In less than 20 minutes, the fire escaped into the surrounding forest.

Burning conditions can change very quickly in the spring. Consider composting as an alternative to burning, and, if you do decide to burn, never leave the fire unattended.

As it turns out, the fire had never gone out in the first place. It had been burning deep in the middle of the pile from mid-March to early May. On May 8, the wind picked up, bringing a new air supply to the pile’s interior and helping the fire to grow.

Crews contained the fire in less than two days. But, by the time it was all said and done—almost seven weeks after the first flame was sparked—nearly 6,000 acres had burned, $5.5 million in property had been lost and $700,000 in timber had been destroyed.

Firefighting equipment and techniques have continually evolved since that Stephan Bridge Road fire nearly 30 years ago, but one thing stubbornly remains the same: nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people.

“Almost all wildfires in Michigan start by accident,” said Jim Fisher, Michigan Department of Natural Resources fire program manager. “The wind picks up and a brush fire gets away or a campfire smolders and comes back to life.”

Approximately 600 wildfires are reported in Michigan each year, and out-of-control debris burning is the top cause. 

 The Stephan Bridge Road fire was a tough lesson to learn: even when precautions are taken, fires can still escape.

You can take some simple steps to fire-proof your property. Clean out your gutters, mow the lawn regularly and consider landscaping with plants that are fire-resistant. The driveway of this home acted as a fire buffer during the Duck Lake Fire in 2012.

It’s especially important to use caution with fire in the spring. March, April, May and June are Michigan’s busiest months for wildfires, claiming 83 percent of fires in 2017. 

The dead grass and leaves from the previous year dry very quickly as days become longer, temperatures begin to rise and humidity levels are often at their lowest points.

“In Michigan, the soils are sandy and don’t hold moisture. We usually get rain and then a low relative humidity when a weather front moves through. We can get a couple inches of rain and, in two days, have a 5,000-acre fire,” said Chris Peterson, fire and aviation staff officer for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

Fire activity also peaks on weekends. Last year, 48 percent of wildfires occurred between Saturday and Monday.

“Folks come up for the weekend and they burn and don’t put out their fire. Then it comes back to life on Monday,” Peterson said.

So far, 140 fires have burned 826 acres in Michigan this year.

What can you do to prevent it?

For starters, always check for a burn permit at www.michigan.gov/burnpermit or your local fire department before you burn yard debris and brush piles.

“Burning conditions can change very quickly, especially this time of year. The wind can switch suddenly, and the fire can get away from you,” Fisher said. “Never leave a fire unattended and always keep water nearby.”

You can also take some easy steps to protect your home from wildfires—especially important since 63 percent of fires start on private property.

“Fire-proof your property. Cut back trees and brush and plant vegetation that does not carry fire. Don’t park equipment, boats or trailers up next to burn piles or in thick vegetation,” Peterson said.

Examples of plants that are resistant to fire include those that retain moisture, like hostas and succulents.

Make sure your house number is easily visible and leave room for emergency responders to work in the event a fire does occur.

Bill Forbush, City of Alpena Fire Department chief, urges people not to be complacent about fire safety. It’s just as important to have working smoke detectors in vacation residences, cabins and campers as it is to have them in your permanent home, he said. 

“Some people say, ‘it can’t happen to me.’ People don’t anticipate that there will be a problem. That’s not always the case,” he said.

Whether you’re burning brush or lighting a campfire, be absolutely sure your fire is out before leaving it unattended.

“One bucket (of water) isn’t going to do it. Turn the coals over and wet it down thoroughly,” Forbush said.

In the event your fire does escape, call 9-1-1, and don’t try to put it out yourself. 

For more information on wildfires and fire safety, go to www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.


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