DNR's fire program crew committed to keeping residents, forests safe

Fire officers discuss plans while working to suppress a wildfire in the Upper Peninsula.

Feb. 28, 2013

Fire can be friend or foe.

Though most people consider the term "forest fire" in a negative context, there are a lot of positives associated with fire. For Michigan Department of Natural Resources' fire officers, it's their job to be the experts in both suppressing wildfires and also using fire as a management tool.

"We not only put fires out, we also use fire to achieve management objectives," said Don Johnson, who is the acting head of the fire program in the DNR's Forest Resources Division (FRD). "We do prescribed burns not only for our division, but for Parks and Wildlife divisions as well. We've also done burns for the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs and MDOT." Fire officers discuss plans while working to suppress a wildfire in the Upper Peninsula. Highly skilled officers from the DNR and other organizations are specially trained to understand how weather and environment affect fire behavior. (Image on the right.)

Prescribed burn in Southeast Michigan.Johnson explained that these carefully managed fires are necessary to restoring and maintaining Michigan's natural ecosystems.

"We burn pine barrens, oak savannahs and prairies," Johnson said. "And we also burn wetlands, where we are using fire to help us control invasive plants, especially phragmites. In these instances, the phragmites is sprayed with an herbicide and we then burn off the killed vegetation to allow for retreatment if needed."

While prescribed burns are part of the program, the bulk of the fire program's emphasis is on preventing and suppressing wildfires across much of the state. The DNR also sends fire officers on out-of-state fire assignments to assist in larger fires.

Jim Fisher, FRD resource protection manager, said the DNR has 68 well-trained fire officers who must pass yearly fitness tests to ensure they can keep up with the physically demanding job.

A fire officer works to put out a 'hot spot' during a wildfire."Our fire officers, and other department staff who have been trained to fight fires in addition to their everyday jobs, have to be in exceptional physical and mental health to be out on the fire line," he said. "These men and women are trained to not only fight the fires, but also have to understand fire behavior and the influences of weather and fuels on that fire behavior."

Fuels consist of both aerial fuels - leaves, needles and limbs, as well as surface fuels - dead and live grasses, leaves, needles and woody debris. The weather influences the condition of those fuels through drying caused by higher temperatures, little rain, low humidity and wind.

"Fire officers must understand how all these factors work together to create the fire behavior they may see on the fire line," Fisher said. "If they do not understand and read these conditions properly they could put themselves, or their fellow fire officers, in a more hazardous situation."

Johnson said the DNR provides protection on all lands in the state except those protected under agreement with federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service.

He added that the DNR protects about 30 million acres.

While the agency's fire-suppression efforts are top-notch, fire program staff would much rather prevent a fire than fight one.

"Prevention is much more cost-effective," explained Paul Kollmeyer, DNR wildfire prevention specialist. Michigan has a long history of preventing fires dating back to 1817 when territorial Governor Lewis Cass signed penalties into law for negligently setting fires and allowing them to escape.

Burning yard debris.Kollmeyer stressed that preventing wildfires is as important now as it ever was.

"Everyone needs to be mindful that any time they strike a match there is a responsibility to be cautious with that flame," he said. "Even though the land is blackened by fires, houses and buildings can be destroyed too. People aren't living in isolation like the early woodland pioneers; structures are commonly threatened at the scene of most wildfires today and larger fires place entire communities at risk."

The DNR frequently develops new strategies to deliver fire-prevention messages and address specific problems. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on utilizing radio, movie theaters and television media campaigns that focus largely on the careless burning of debris – the leading cause of wildfires in Michigan.

Kollmeyer said it's key for residents to remember that burn permits are required anytime the ground isn't snow-covered. In northern Michigan, permits are issued through a simple process of checking availability on the Internet (www.michigan.gov/burnpermit) or by calling the DNR's automated burn permit telephone system (866-922-2876). Southern Michigan counties issue burn permits through their local governments, allowing for specific ordinances to be incorporated into burning guidelines.

This year, attention will center on "ember awareness" and the need to quench hot coals from campfires, burn piles or discarded barbeque and wood stove ashes. Similarly, when the fireworks law was changed last year allowing access to more powerful fireworks, the DNR delivered a targeted message to users urging them to take precautions when handling near flammable vegetation.

And you can't talk about fire prevention without mentioning the campaign's most well-known advocate.

"Smokey Bear remains an incredible icon," Kollmeyer said. "People love having Smokey show up at an event. Just with his presence, a fire-prevention message is delivered."

When it comes to wildfire detection, the DNR maintains a fleet of small airplanes that fly over forests to spot fires.

"We have five aircraft for fire detection, two in Roscommon and one each in Newberry, Escanaba and Houghton," Johnson said. "We also contract for additional planes in the Lower Peninsula. Detection pilots not only spot fires, they also provide us with important intelligence - where the fire is, where it's going, and what might be ahead of it, which helps us in evacuations. We couldn't function without them."

The acts of wildfire prevention and suppression are truly cooperative efforts.

There are 1,075 fire departments in Michigan and almost all respond to wildfires each year. Through joint efforts, the DNR aids departments with training and by increasing capability to respond to fires through the offering of excess federal equipment and grants to purchase wildland fire gear. Since the local fire department is the first to arrive at the scene, there is a benefit to everyone by increasing local capacity to manage wildfires that occur in their jurisdiction.

Michigan is a member of the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact along with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, to cooperate on fire-prevention and firefighting efforts.

"We do a lot of joint training," Johnson said, "It's higher-level training that we couldn't get done individually, but we can collectively."

When a big fire breaks out, members of the compact will be called upon to assist in fire-suppression activities.

"During the Duck Lake Fire last year, one of the big planes and a support team from Minnesota came and helped," Johnson said. "And a number of folks from Wisconsin -- with four tractors and engines -- were deployed through the compact.

"In 2007, Wisconsin sent several tractors to the Sleeper Lake Fire and they never even billed us. "They refused to bill us," Johnson said. "They said, 'That's what friends are for.'" To learn more about the DNR's fire program, get tips and guidance on preventing wildfires, or sign up to receive wildfire management and other forestry-related updates from the DNR, visit www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.