Michigan DNR's nationally recognized fire program celebrates 100 years

Historical photo shows a pull-behind plow used to create fire breaks.

Dec. 12, 2014

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.

"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."

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

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

Historical photo of a fire officer using heavy machinery to create a fire break.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.

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.

Historical photo showing the use of a walk-behind plow to create a fire break.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."