Wildfire danger remains extreme across Michigan — and now winds are coming

In the 48 years they've been keeping weather data at stations throughout Michigan, Department Natural Resources officials have seen extreme wildfire conditions like this only once or twice before — and perhaps never this bad.

Almost a full month without significant rainfall has left leaves, pine needles and other vegetation on forest floors super-dry and ready to ignite with a small spark — as occurred with the 2,400-plus-acre wildfire near Grayling last weekend that led to the evacuation of 300 people and temporarily closed Interstate 75 freeway on Saturday. That fire was 100% contained as of Tuesday afternoon.

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A full crown wildfire burns in jack pine and red pine on the Fife Lake Outlet Fire on Sunday, May 28 in northern Wexford County.
A full crown wildfire burns in jack pine and red pine on the Fife Lake Outlet Fire on Sunday, May 28 in northern Wexford County.

Nearly all of Michigan faces 'extreme' fire danger

"This is pretty remarkable," said Dan Heckman, a plan section chief with one of DNR's incident management teams in charge of collecting and analyzing wildfire data.

"It's not that we've got 'extreme' fire danger in a few spots; there is 'extreme' fire danger across the majority of the state — and if it's not 'extreme,' it's 'very high.'"

The only two weather stations in Michigan without "extreme" or "very high" fire danger at the moment are at the tip of the Thumb in the Lower Peninsula, and at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula, Heckman said.

More: Dry conditions, no rain in sight have Michigan at 'unprecedented' wildfire danger levels

More: Grayling wildfire nearly contained; people urged to stay away from area

'Just avoid burning'

And low winds that have been an ally to wildfire-fighters over the past few weeks are now expected to increase in coming days, potentially leading to more widespread, intense fires. That's left DNR officials with an urgent plea to residents.

"The biggest thing right now is just avoid burning," said Paul Rogers, a DNR wildfire prevention specialist. "There is no reason to be burning yard waste right now. Wait for some rain."

An aerial view of the Crawford County wildfire from the Michigan State Police Aviation Unit helicopter on Saturday, June 3, 2023.
An aerial view of the Crawford County wildfire from the Michigan State Police Aviation Unit helicopter on Saturday, June 3, 2023.

The DNR controls yard waste burn permitting in the northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas, and is not issuing permits. Burn permits in the southern Lower Peninsula are handled by local governments, and people should check with their local fire departments — but they probably aren't allowing yard waste-burning now, either.

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The DNR has fought 193 wildfires so far this season, burning more than 3,000 acres, most of that in the Grayling-area wildfire. "Many, many" smaller fires have been taken care of by local fire departments, Rogers said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer comments

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged Michiganders to share responsibility in preventing further fires.

"It's been very dry," she said after signing a bill in Plymouth Township. "There are three days of rain in the forecast but we know that that can change. I don’t know how much rain we’ll get, so we’re monitoring it very closely. I’m in communication with my fellow governors from neighboring states to ascertain kind of what actions they’re contemplating here as well.

"But we are discouraging people from burning anything right now. There’s not been a rule that’s been announced, but everyone’s got to be really smart. We know with this fire that we’re still putting out was started in an individual private campfire, and so those individual actions impact all of us so that’s why we’re asking people to take this very seriously.”

Prevention tips

Rogers offered tips for wildfire prevention:

  • Be careful even with lawn-mowing. "A lot of yards are drying right up, but there are still weeds that grow," Rogers said. "There is a weed called buckthorn, a lot of people like to mow that down. Well, if your grass is completely dead, all it takes is a spark from that lawnmower blade when it hits a stone, and that will start a fire."

  • Use extreme caution with campfires, cook fires. Those fires aren't recommended — it was a campfire on private land that got out of control and caused last weekend's wildfire. If you must have a campfire, have a water source, rake and shovel nearby. Never leave the fire unattended, even for a minute. Avoid fires during windy conditions. Douse a finished fire with water, stir the ashes and douse it again, being sure to significantly wet the fire ring.

  • Hit the trails responsibly. ATV, UTV and motorcycle users should make sure their spark arrestors are in good, working condition, Rogers said.

  • Prepare your cabin or cottage. Clean yard waste well away from homes. Make sure leaves and pine needles are off the roof. Don't stack firewood or other flammable materials close to the home. Trim tree branches up 8 to 9 feet, so that fire can't travel up trees as easily. And have a water supply at the ready, such as a garden hose.

  • Call for help. If a fire is getting away from you, don't hesitate to call 911 and get emergency responders on the way, Rogers said. Prompt response is the biggest key to stopping a wildfire from becoming large once it has started.

  • For more information, go to www.michigan.gov/dnr/education/safety-info/fire.

Contact Keith Matheny: kmatheny@freepress.com. Clara Hendrickson contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Wildfire danger remains extreme across Michigan — and winds are coming