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Tag Archive | "wildfires"

DNR firefighters help fight wildland blazes out west 

A DNR firefighter snapped this shot of a helicopter in action earlier this summer on assignment assisting firefighters in Colorado. DNR firefighters are currently helping fight wildland fires in several western states.

More than a dozen wildland firefighters from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have been sent to California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere to battle wildfires and to gain valuable firefighting experience.

A crew of three firefighters has taken a DNR fire engine to help fight the vast and still raging Carr fire in northern California, said Dan Laux, fire section manager for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. Laux just returned from a two-week fire assignment in Portland, Oregon, mobilizing resources to battle fires in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho.

“We’re mobilizing as many people as we can to assist wherever necessary,” Laux said. “It’s a great way for our folks to get experience, while providing their own skills and experiences to the situation at hand.”

Assistance agreements go both ways. If a significant fire occurs in Michigan, firefighters from other states and Canadian provinces can be tapped for help. Michigan’s largest recent fire was the Duck Lake blaze in the eastern Upper Peninsula, which burned more than 21,000 acres in 2012.

Since the beginning of the year, Michigan has sent firefighters to California, Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

The Carr fire in northern California has burned more than 100,000 acres to date, causing six deaths. Fire officials there put out a national request last week for wildland fire engines from across the nation, and a three-man crew took a Michigan truck from the DNR’s Gladwin unit to California.

The DNR always keeps enough firefighters in the state to respond to any fires that might occur, though fire activity has slowed after recent rains in the northern portion of the state. The DNR also is fully reimbursed for the cost of sending firefighters to assist elsewhere.

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DNR fire crews respond to wildfires May 1


Three major blazes in Crawford, Newaygo and Wexford counties

Michigan Department of Natural Resources fire personnel spent much of the overnight May 1 and early-morning hours May 2 working to contain several wildfires, including three that were significant.

The one nearest our area was the “Oak fire.” It was reported at approximately 6:45 p.m. south of M-82 in Newaygo County, just over 6 miles east of Newaygo. The estimated 105-acre fire, located primarily on federal land, was contained at around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Fire crews stopped the head of the fire before it reached M-82, although the flanks of the fire were still very active. This fire burned primarily in mature pine and oak. Two residences were evacuated and 15 structures were threatened, but excellent work by 11 local volunteer fire departments, U.S. Forest Service crews and DNR fire crews resulted in all of the structures being saved. The fire initially caused the closure of M-82 between Elm and Spruce, which has since reopened. Fire crews continued fire-suppression and mop-up efforts throughout Wednesday. 

The Grayling Fire was reported at approximately 4 p.m. Tuesday along I-75 in southern Crawford County, about 7 miles south of Grayling. The fire jumped the southbound lane of I-75 and stopped when it hit the northbound lane. As a result, a stretch of I-75 was shut down for about an hour and a half. DNR crews contained the fire, estimated to be just over 44 acres in size. 

The Bond Mill Pond Fire was reported shortly before 5 p.m. in Haring Township, Wexford County, approximately 5 miles north/northwest of Cadillac. The fire was contained and is estimated at 79 acres with 2.8 miles of perimeter around the fire. A majority of the fire burned on state forest land. The fire burned a variety of fuel types including scotch, red, and jack pine; leaf litter; hardwoods, and aspen. The fire caused the evacuation of 79 residences, but all were allowed to return home the same evening. A U.S. Forest Service helicopter provided air support for the fire-suppression efforts and dropped 1,600 gallons of water before being grounded due to high winds. Fire crews continued fire-suppression and mop-up efforts throughout the day Wednesday. 

The cause of all three fires is unknown and currently under investigation. 

After the fire in Newaygo.
Post photo by M. Kleyn

Red flag fire conditions Tuesday across the northern Lower Peninsula resulted in an active day for wildfires throughout the area. Red flag fire warnings are issued when weather conditions are expected to include strong winds, warm temperatures and low relative humidity—a combination that can lead to very high or extreme fire danger. 

Weather Wednesday significantly assisted in the fire-suppression efforts, as both the Bond Mill Pond and Oak fires received rainfall in the morning. Although rain is forecast for the next few days, fire danger will pick up again with any significant stretches of dry weather.

“These fires were contained as a result of the hard work and excellent cooperation of multiple agencies,” said Jim Fisher, the DNR’s state wildland fire supervisor, citing the efforts of the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, Michigan State Police, the Department of Transportation, Wexford County Emergency Operations, Newaygo County Emergency Operations, the Crawford County Road Commission, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Life EMS and several volunteer fire departments.

The public is reminded to take precautions when doing yard work this spring. Be sure to check local weather and fire danger before burning debris, and always check to see if a burn permit is required for local areas. Other safety tips include burning debris in barrels with metal screens, clearing vegetation around burn areas, ensuring a water source is nearby, and staying with a fire until it is completely extinguished. Learn more at www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.  

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Michigan DNR wildfire fighters help battle western blazes

Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters are on the scene in Montana to help with fires around the state. Michigan personnel on loan in Montana include two three-man engine crews and an incident management team. Photo by Michigan DNR firefighter Cory Mallory.

Helicopters fly over a burning hillside in Montana recently as firefighters work to control a grass fire. Two Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildland fire engines staffed by two three-man crews as well as an incident management team are in Montana now helping with fire suppression efforts. Photo by Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Surrounded by smoke, constantly watching the wind and trying to tamp down fast-moving flames, Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighters using two specially equipped fire trucks have been helping battle grass and forest wildfires in Montana since mid-July.

They may do what firefighters call “black lining”—purposely burning a strip of grass to deprive an approaching wildfire of fuel and stop it in its tracks.

Or they may “wet line”—dousing combustible materials in the path of a fire to keep a blaze from spreading.

Or they might, during a breather from work, do what any of us would: whip out cell phones to shoot a quick video as a low-flying tanker plane releases a belly full of water over a hot spot of burning trees, brush or grass.

“Statistically, it’s the grasses that are the most dangerous. They move fast and burn quick,” said Ben Osterland, who led one of two three-man teams that drove the Michigan fire engines to Montana.

Fires have consumed more than half a million acres across Montana so far this season, and Michigan wildland firefighters are playing critical roles in helping put them out. The engines remain in Montana and a third set of crews rotated into the fire zone this week.

In mid-July, Osterland and Cory Mallory each led an engine team, driving the massive, four-wheel-drive vehicles from Michigan to Montana on a 20-hour trek at speeds that maxed out around 64 miles per hour to work long days and live under sometimes primitive conditions.

“Montana absolutely loved our people and they love our trucks,” said Lee Osterland, who also worked on an incident management team in Montana this summer. “It’s a really good opportunity to help another state out.” Michigan firefighters also are serving in Oregon and Washington state now and spent time in Arizona and British Columbia earlier this summer.

The four-wheel-drive fire vehicles are equipped with brush guards and a winch. They carry 800 gallons of water as well as a pump and two reels of hose.

When laying a wet line, the driver may drive slowly along while another firefighter walks alongside, spraying water, and the passenger sprays water from nozzles controlled from inside the cab. Then they set a fire between the wet line and the advancing fire.

“You burn the fuel in front of the fire, so you are essentially fighting fire with fire,” Mallory said.

Firefighters might stay in hotels if the blaze is close to a big-enough city, but they often camp near the site or even sleep in their trucks.

“Where I was, we slept in the dirt,” Ben Osterland said. “We were in tents every night. Some nights, we were on the night shift and we would sleep during the day, when it was the hottest.”

For several days in a row, his crew ate only prepackaged military meals; they also went 10 long days without a shower. But living conditions weren’t the hardest part, he said.

“We were away from cell phone service and you could go days without talking to anyone back home,” he said.

“At the same time, you meet a lot of great people when you’re out there. I’ve created a lot of friendships from those trips. I have met a lot of great people.”

Mallory also says the hardship is worth it, especially when you’re talking to a rancher whose cattle might go hungry if the fire spreads.

“You know you’re making a difference,” he said.

As they work in other states, Michigan firefighters gain valuable experience and earn additional certifications. For example, Mallory started his firefighting career as a key man – a temporary, on-call firefighter – during the Upper Peninsula’s Duck Lake Fire in 2012. Since then, he has worked fires in Georgia and Missouri as well and earned certifications to become a crew leader.

“I was a little nervous when I first got out there, I didn’t know what to expect,” Mallory said of being a crew leader. “But when you work with a team you can trust, it gives you peace of mind.”

The Department of Natural Resources is fully reimbursed for all costs associated with sending firefighters on out-of-state blazes. Learn more about DNR firefighting efforts at michigan.gov/firemanagement.

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Michigan fire season builds during Wildfire Prevention Week

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is using Wildfire Prevention Week (April 16-22) to remind people to go to to check if burn permits are being issued in their area before burning any yard debris.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is using Wildfire Prevention Week (April 16-22) to remind people to go to to check if burn permits are being issued in their area before burning any yard debris.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and its cooperators are observing Wildfire Prevention Week April 16-22. Most wildfires on Michigan’s 20 million acres of state and private forest land occur in April, May and June.

“Michigan typically experiences some of its higher fire conditions during the spring,” said Bryce Avery, DNR fire prevention specialist. “The dead grass and leaves from last year dry very quickly as days become longer, temperatures begin to rise, and humidity levels are often at their lowest points. Breezy conditions increase the danger, but even on calm days, one ember landing in some dead grass is enough to start a wildfire.”

Warm spring weather increases the amount of outdoor activities, like yard cleanup, campfires and fireworks. All of these activities require planning and caution before and after fires are lit.

“To dispose of yard waste, consider composting, but if you are planning on burning yard debris, your first step should be to check if the DNR is issuing burn permits in your area,” said Avery.

Burn permits are required prior to burning brush and debris in Michigan when the ground is not snow-covered. Residents in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula can obtain a free burn permit by visiting  www.michigan.gov/burnpermit or by calling 866-922-2876. Residents in southern Michigan should contact their local fire department or township office to see if burning is permitted in their area.

In addition to obtaining a burn permit, the DNR recommends people take the following steps to help prevent wildfires:

  • Pay attention to the fire danger in your area. Don’t burn debris when conditions are dry or windy. Unsafe burning of leaves, brush and other debris is the main cause of wildfires.
  • Clear away flammable material surrounding the fire so it won’t creep into dry vegetation.
  • Keep campfires small, and do not leave before they are fully extinguished.
  • Have a shovel and water available at all times when you are burning. Be sure to douse fires with plenty of water, stir and add more water until everything is wet.
  • Do not cover a campfire with soil; it may simply smolder before coming back to life.
  • Embers can re-ignite. Make sure they are out completely.
  • Consider composting or mulching yard debris rather than burning it.

Historically, debris burning has been the No. 1 cause of wildfires in Michigan.

For more tips in safeguarding your home and property from wildfire risk, please visit www.michigan.gov/preventwildfires.

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Fire, jack pine and aspen: understanding a historic relationship

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighter conducts a controlled burn. Photos courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighter conducts a controlled burn. Photos courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The connection between healthy forests and fire may be firmly established and  understood by foresters and wildlife managers, and helpful to countless wildlife species. However, not everyone outside those occupations has the same understanding.

Recall the late 1980s, when wildfires blackened much of Yellowstone National Park. Conservation professionals argued then that long-term, the effects of the fires would be very positive for the ecosystem for a number of reasons.

The public at large wasn’t necessarily convinced. This is understandable, because  for decades government officials had actively campaigned against fires.

Remember Smokey Bear’s motto? “Only you can prevent forest fires.” That message has been edited in recent years from “forest fires” to “wildfires,” which allows that all fires are not necessarily bad.

In Michigan forests, there are several tree species that have a long history of dependence on fire, though newer forestry techniques have helped to diminish this need.

Jack pine cones are sealed with resin. Often, the cones do not release their seeds upon maturity, but rather, after an environmental trigger, including fire.

Jack pine cones are sealed with resin. Often, the cones do not release their seeds upon maturity, but rather, after an environmental trigger, including fire.

Aspen and jack pine are two Michigan species that historically relied on fire for survival and regeneration. These species are well-adapted to regeneration following any stand-replacing disturbance, such as wind throw (trees being uprooted or broken by wind) or timber harvest.

“Both species exist in Michigan because of fire prior to European settlement,” said Keith Kintigh, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources field operations biologist in the northern Lower Peninsula. “They evolved to respond to fires.”

Kintigh said aspen and jack pine require 50- to 70-year tree stand level disturbance for them to be maintained. They are short-lived species that like lots of sunlight.

“When the surveyors came through Michigan in the 1800s, they found that in certain places, major wildfires were occurring frequently, at least every 60 years,” Kintigh said. “Some ecologists believe that this frequency could not be explained by lightning strikes alone.”

Kintigh said Michigan has a bunch of wildlife species that are associated with those disturbances.

Scientists have concluded that Native Americans used fire to manage forests and grasslands. Aspen forests, and the associated flora and fauna—including white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse—would have benefited from these fires.

Native Americans would have found better blueberry crops in the years after jack pine forest burns, as many people do today.

Historically, jack pines were especially dependent on fire because of their reproductive mechanism. Jack pines sport cones sealed with resin (these are known as serotinous cones).

Often, the cones do not release their seeds upon maturity, but rather, after an environmental trigger. In the jack pines’ case, that trigger can be fire. The cones remain tightly closed until heat from fire or sunlight melts the resin and opens them, allowing the cones to release their seeds for spreading by gravity and winds.

The DNR maintains significant amounts of young jack pine forest in Michigan’s state forests, as it is the only viable breeding habitat for the federally endangered Kirtland’s warbler. However, fire is not a preferred way to regenerate jack pine today in the northern Lower Peninsula where most all of the Kirtland’s warblers nest.

“We’re using logging to maintain Kirtland’s warbler habitat in the absence of fire,” Kintigh said. “There are homes, cottages and schools mixed into, or situated next to, state forest and the trees have value. We can’t just have wildfires across the landscape.”

Prescribed burns are still being used for various purposes, but not generally for aspen or jack pine regeneration.

“We burn jack pine after it’s harvested,” said Keith Murphy, the DNR’s Forest Resources Division fire management specialist for the Upper Peninsula. “We have to be careful because jack pines are the most highly volatile fuel out there.

“In the spring of the year, it’s at its worst when there’s little moisture in the needles, usually in mid-May, but we burn it after a timber sale to get the cones to release their seeds or to remove branches and treetops to make it easier to trench (plow) the site.”

In the northern Lower Peninsula, foresters and wildlife biologists have found they can best produce the high-density stands required for Kirtland’s warbler nesting habitat by planting.

After a jack pine stand has been harvested, the stand is trenched and replanted from nursery stock grown primarily in the Upper Peninsula.

Aspen is also well-adapted to fire as it reproduces from suckers that spring up from the root stock, so any event that removes the trees will lead to regeneration.

These days, aspen managers generally use clear-cutting to stimulate regeneration. Murphy said that’s just as well because aspen does not burn as readily as jack pine. Aspen has moist leaves and thick stems, which are comparatively not as combustible as the dry needles and twigs of jack pines.

Getting forest producers to harvest aspen is not a problem.

“There’s a lot of demand for aspen,” said Tim Greco, a timber management specialist with the DNR’s Forest Resources Division in Gaylord. “It’s used in OSB (oriented strand board) chip material. The fibers are very good for holding glue and strength for OSB.”

Forest products mills that use aspen are also an important part of rural communities in Michigan and they provide a building material that’s in demand for new homes.

Aspen also has great utility for use in writing paper, cardboard, hardboard and pallet lumber. Some manufacturers even use veneer from aspen for certain products, like paint sticks.

“We very rarely have a problem selling aspen timber sales,” Greco said. “The demand is very good. Combine that with wildlife values and it’s an all-around win-win situation.”

Prescribed burning of aspen is often done to improve habitat for upland gamebirds and white-tailed deer.

“But it doesn’t have to be a fast-burning, rip-roaring fire,” he continued. “If you crack the bark you can kill it. And we will burn it to regenerate it for grouse habitat—a lot depends on what DNR Wildlife Division wants to do with it.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service, though aspen forests do not burn readily, aspen trees are extremely sensitive to fire.

A fire intense enough to kill the aspen forest overstory will stimulate abundant suckering, though some suckers arise after any fire. The Forest Service said as many as 50,000 to 100,000 suckers can sprout and grow on a single acre after a fire.

Get more information on DNR fire management in Michigan at www.michigan.gov/dnr.

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DNR’s fire program celebrates 100 years

Historical photo depicts a pull-behind water unit connected to hand lines for fire suppression.

Historical photo depicts a pull-behind water unit connected to hand lines for fire suppression.

Historically, it’s the years with the large wildfires that garner the most public attention. For example, in 2012—the year of the Duck Lake fire—497 fires burned 23,814 acres.

In 2014, Michigan set a new record when it came to wildfires—a record low. This past fire season, 167 fires burned 550 acres across the state.
“The record low numbers for wildfires can be attributed to damp weather conditions,” said Paul Kollmeyer, who oversees the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire suppression and prevention efforts.
In addition to the wet weather conditions keeping fire numbers low, Kollmeyer said the DNR’s work to spread fire prevention messages has been key in helping to reduce the number of wildfires caused by people.

DNR fire tower near Arnold, Mich., circa 1965.

DNR fire tower near Arnold, Mich., circa 1965.

“Nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people,” he said. “Our strategy has always been to get an educational prevention message out to folks of all ages. Through our efforts most people now take extra steps to be careful with fire. They also understand that they need to check if the DNR is issuing burn permits before they burn leaves and yard debris.”
Spreading the fire prevention message across the state requires a lot of boots on the ground at schools, parades, fairs and other events. The DNR has 68 fire officers deployed at 48 stations across the state who, in addition to suppressing wildfires on public and private land, join their friend Smokey Bear to remind folks to be careful with fire.
“Fire officers are required to have diverse job skills,” Kollmeyer said. “They might be interacting with elementary school kids one day and building a firebreak the next day. Their jobs require a lot of specialized training. It’s a job that has evolved a lot over the past 100 years.”

The historic low number of wildfires corresponds to another historic event in Michigan: 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of William J. Pearson being appointed as the state’s first full-time forest fire officer. Pearson developed the state’s fire control organization, starting with the aid of a few game, fish and forest wardens and some part-time assistance from a handful of temporary patrolmen, lookouts and fire wardens.
He also developed a system of lookout towers and telephone lines for spotting and reporting fires. These tools and techniques gradually evolved into the fire suppression organization the DNR has today.

Prior to 1914, forest fire suppression and prevention was handled by the timber industry, funded by a fee assessed on their ownership acreage paid to the Northern Forest Protective Association. By 1907, the Legislature authorized the employment of “not more than 10 district deputy game, fish and forestry wardens to employ firefighters, impress labor and enforce the fire laws.” But it was the appointment of Pearson in 1914 that really got the ball rolling. That year, there were 935 fires reported that burned 408,765 acres. The private fire associations began to fall by the wayside as the state stepped up fire prevention and suppression efforts. Tactics for fighting fires began to change at that time, too. When World War I began in 1914, horses were still being used to haul cannons and other heavy equipment; by the end of the war, tanks and other mechanized equipment had proved their value in navigating difficult terrain and began to be incorporated into firefighting tactics replacing horse drawn plows, axes and shovels. This was a turning point in the way Michigan battled wildfires back then and mechanized firefighting remains the most efficient means to combat wildfires today.

“The reason we don’t have million-acre fires anymore like we did in the 1800s is because we have mechanization and a road system to quickly respond with off-road firefighting equipment operated by skilled fire officers,” Kollmeyer said. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1923, 1,336 fires burned 466,474 acres. Two years later, 3,887 fires consumed 733,750 acres. And in 1930, there were 4,690 fires reported, burning 290,300 acres. But gradually, both the number of fires and the destruction they wreaked were reduced.

A big change occurred in 1944, when Smokey Bear was adopted in a national campaign to engage the public in fire prevention.
“We still message with Smokey’s help, even after 70 years,” Kollmeyer said. “Our fire program is not just about fighting fires, it’s about preventing fires, too. People have changed and their mindset has changed.”
But the mission of fire officers hasn’t. “Fire officers were originally hired for prevention and coordination,” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”

Prescribed fire designed to enhance wildlife habitat or reduce hazardous and invasive vegetation has become a large portion of a fire officer’s duties in recent years.
“This year in Michigan, there were more acres of beneficial prescribed burn treatments than what we responded to for wildfires,” Kollmeyer said. “We conducted 105 burns for 10,488 acres to enhance wildlife habitat, improve forest regeneration, to control invasive plants and to reduce the risk of wildfires.”

When not actively suppressing fires, fire officers spend a lot of time training—maintaining their skills as well as developing new ones. “We cooperatively train rural fire departments in wildfire fighting techniques, maintain equipment and assist with the development of new equipment,” explained Dana Pelton, a DNR forest fire officer supervisor in Gaylord. “Additionally, we write plans outlining parameters that will provide the desired results for upcoming prescribed burns.”
Fire officers will also assist with other forestry activities—marking timber for sale, treating diseases and removing hazardous trees (such as at Belle Isle in Detroit this year), she said. A background in forestry is helpful for fire officers, but it isn’t the only attribute the DNR looks for when recruiting. Ability to communicate with the public, make presentations and mechanical aptitude all come into play.

“It’s a multi-faceted job,” Pelton said. “There’s a lot more to it than just driving around a fire truck.”
And, of course, fire officers will continue to work on enlightening the public to the dangers of wildfires. “You never know about the fire you prevented, but that’s the way we like it,” Pelton said. “And for those that aren’t prevented—we’ll be ready.”

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