Extreme fire conditions continue in Michigan

The Wilderness Trail Fire in northern Lower Peninsula now is 100% contained. However, fire danger remains at levels of “very high” to “extreme” across Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

MARQUETTE — With Michigan experiencing an extended extreme level of fire danger, unprecedented weather conditions and recent wildfires, including a large one near downstate Grayling, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is keeping a close eye on conditions.

Dan Heckman, a DNR plans section chief with the Incident Management Team, provided an update on the fire situation on Wednesday.

The lack of rain is the big story now, he said, although there are other factors regarding how quickly a fire can spread.

“Temperature, relative humidity, wind and rain play a big factor in this,” said Heckman, who pointed out that when materials like decomposing leaves, pine needles and grass blades acting as dense fuel sources dry out, it drives the intensity of fire levels.

“Low relative humidity really sucks the moisture out of those fuels,” Heckman said.

What has helped fire crews this month, he said, has been the relative low wind speeds.

However, that can change, with the speeds forecasted to be a little higher today, Heckman said.

“That’s why we see things such as the red flag warnings being issued,” he said.

The National Weather Service in Negaunee Township issued a red flag warning for the central and eastern Upper Peninsula for Wednesday, meaning strong winds, low relative humidity and dry fuels combined to create dangerous wildfire conditions.

Campfires, outdoor grills, smoking materials, chainsaws and all-terrain vehicles, the NWS said, have the potential to throw a spark and ignite a wildfire.

NWS forecasts a 30% chance of showers for Friday night, but otherwise, no rain is expected through early next week.

Heckman said that in the U.P., weather reports from the Seney area show that conditions are not as severe as those seen in the northern Lower Peninsula, but the initial spread index is slightly higher in Seney because of forecasted wind speeds.

He pointed out that fire danger ratings this season have been “very high” and “extreme” for the downstate Grayling and Mio areas, as well as the Seney area. The only areas in the state not in those categories are the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula and the tip of the Thumb downstate.

Paul Rogers, DNR fire prevention specialist, said that so far this fire season, over 600 acres have burned in Michigan due to wildfires.

“There’s been many, many smaller ones that the local volunteer fire departments have taken care of, and city fire departments,” Rogers said. “We greatly appreciate their help.”

Fire crews continued putting out hot spots within the Wilderness Trail Fire burn area on Tuesday as local roads reopened, the DNR reported in a news release. The fire, estimated at 2,418 acres in size, was 100% contained.

The DNR asks people to stay away from the area in Crawford County’s Grayling Township to give fire crews space to finish their work.

“We know it is interesting to see and that people are curious, but we want to make sure we have the room to get our work done safely,” said Mike Janisse, commander of the DNR Incident Management Team that has been assisting with the fire, in a statement. “Driving on the dry roads creates a great deal of dust, which makes for poor visibility.”

Roads also are narrow and there is little room for passing, the DNR said.

The DNR said the fire started about 1 p.m. Saturday near Staley Lake, escaping from a campfire on private property and quickly burning in a southwest direction through jack pine, mixed pine and oak in hilly, sandy terrain. The fire caused the evacuation of about 300 people until around 11 p.m. Saturday and closed I-75 in both directions Saturday afternoon and evening.

DNR ground crews working on the fire were assisted by many local agencies and air support, including water-bearing planes and helicopters from the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan State Police.

Fire danger remains very high to extreme across the state, the DNR said, and the agency is not issuing permits for open burning at this time. People who must build a campfire or cooking fire are advised to keep a close eye on it at all times and keep it small. They should drench it with water, stir and drench again until it is cold to the touch before leaving it.

DNR firefighters statewide have fought more than two dozen fires in the past week. However, John Pepin, deputy public information officer with the DNR, indicated in an email that no U.P. fires have been reported to the DNR’s incident coordination center.

Rogers said during Wednesday’s brief that the DNR continues its prevention messaging, with electronic fire danger signs in high traffic areas, such as by the Mackinac Bridge and in Marquette and Escanaba.

“Even if we start getting rain — and we recommend this all the time — always check, either with your local fire department or with us, to see if we’re issuing permits,” Rogers said.

He provided another bit of advice with the current situation.

“The biggest thing right now is, just avoid burning,” Rogers said. “There’s no reason to be burning yard waste right now. Wait for some rain. Consider other alternatives. There’s mulching, composting.”

Other suggestions to avoid starting fires, he said, include clearing needles off a roof, avoiding stacking items against a cabin, trimming trees up to 8 to 9 feet off the ground so fire cannot travel up into them, keeping yards clean of waste debris and having water readily available.

Rogers urged people to call 911 if a fire escapes.

“Do not hesitate in these conditions to wait and put it out yourself,” he said.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today