MARQUETTE - With almost triple the number of wildfires reported this year in Michigan compared to last year - including the third-largest wildfire in the past 50 years - Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighters are operating at equipment and personnel levels below what a legislator's task force recommended 15 years ago.
The deficiencies were highlighted in a recent document produced by staff of the DNR's Forest Resources Division, which compared current levels with 1997 and recommendations from a task force convened that year by then state Rep. Alan Lowe, R-Grayling.
The DNR is required by state law to take charge of wildfire suppression and prevention on state and private lands.
"We do this working closely with local fire departments and other wildfire agencies. We utilize highly-trained staff, including four incident management teams, and specialized equipment to carry out our suppression responsibilities," the recent DNR document read. "Unfortunately, the state of Michigan's economic problems over the past decade have seriously eroded the MDNR's fire program capabilities."
Bill O'Neill, acting chief of the DNR's Forest Resources Division, said the agency tries to respond to wildfires in less than 30 minutes, with hopes of keeping fires under 10 acres.
"That response time really does depend on the number of people you have available," O'Neill said.
In 1997, the total number of fire program staff was 162, with 192 recommended by the Lowe task force. Today, the total is at 100. The number of fire officers available for initial attack stands at 57 today, compared to 83 in 1997.
Though the task force recommended 142 fire officers, O'Neill said the DNR doesn't advocate having as many as 100 fire officers. But the agency, without setting a specific target number, would like to see additional investment in the fire program, O'Neill said.
In 1997, there were 42 seasonal firefighters. Budget concerns over the past two years have prevented the DNR from hiring any of these firefighters, which worked for three months each year battling fires.
O'Neill said DNR personnel have been cross-trained for some firefighting capabilities. In addition, there are 150 or more so-called "key men" tied to local fire departments who are paid on call firefighters.
"The program is currently unable to meet the resource needs of our 17 dispatch zones (high hazard areas) when the fire danger reaches 'very high' or 'extreme'," the DNR document read.
From 2009-2011, there were 38 days the DNR was unable to meet staffing needs for zone dispatches in the Lower Peninsula and had pieces of specialized equipment sitting idle with no qualified staff to operate it, according to the document.
Currently, there are 23 stations staffed with one person each. There were 12 in 1997 and the task force recommended eight.
In terms of equipment, there were 126 engines 15 years ago, the same number recommended by the task force. Today, there are 122. However, the number of engines past replacement age is 49, compared to 30 in 1997 and zero recommended by the task force.
There were 70 tractor/plows in 1997, as was recommended, compared to 62 today. The number of those past replacement age is 38, compared to 31 in 1997 and zero recommended by the task force.
At the time the task force report was written, the fire program budget was about 75 percent derived from general fund money and 25 percent from the forest development fund.
"As the state's budgets came under increasing pressure, the Legislature shifted funding from general fund to forest development fund," the DNR document read.
O'Neill said the current DNR wildfire budget includes about $3.3 million from the general fund and $13 million from the forest development fund.
"This is now a significant concern because in fiscal year 2013, the forest development fund is projected to have a $2 million shortfall, which will likely lead to additional program reductions," the DNR document said.
As of Tuesday, there had been 322 wildfires in Michigan this year, compared to 115 at the same time last year, according to the DNR. Of those blazes, 79 have been in the Upper Peninsula, charring a total of 21,507 acres. That total includes the Duck Lake Fire, which burned more than 21,000 acres in Luce County, after igniting May 23 by a lightning strike.
In the Lower Peninsula, there have been 238 fires this year, burning a total of 1,615 acres.
"This has been a very active year," O'Neill said.
Ninty-three percent of the acres burned this year were by fires produced by lightning strikes.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com.