ATLANTA — Since January, wildfires have burned just over 3,000 acres in Michigan.
The vast majority of these burnt lands were burnt last week in a fire that originated in the county of Montmorency.
By Tuesday night, firefighters had surrounded and extinguished nearly all of the 2,516-acre blaze, though some hot spots may remain, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Containing the blaze in fire-prone conditions required the work of a large team of firefighting professionals, a well-coordinated management team and locals willing to volunteer their time and support to protect their neighbours.
“It went really well,” said Steven Cameron, Incident Commander for the DNR. “Everyone rallied.”
A CHANGED LANDSCAPE
A bumpy half-hour side road northwest of Atlanta, rich green undergrowth and trees with light green new leaves suddenly turn black.
After closing several roads to the public as the fire spread north into Cheboygan County, the DNR reopened all roads on Tuesday, warning residents they could still encounter hotspots, trees ready to s collapsing or firefighters mopping up the remains of the fire.
On Tuesday afternoon, a mile-long stretch of Blue Lakes Club Road was surrounded by charred logs sticking out of a carpet of crisp grass.
Furrows dug in the ground marked where firefighters on forest-ready bulldozers dug boundaries to stop the spread of fire, the scorched blackness stopping neatly on one side of each jagged line of dirt and overturned trees.
On the other side of each furrow, the evergreens and oaks of the Pigeon River State Forest continued, unaware of the vast scorch mark in their midst.
A COORDINATED EFFORT
Fighting the Blue Lakes Fire – so named because it originated just east of the Blue Lakes in the westernmost part of Montmorency County – required the combined efforts of more than 40 MNR firefighters, of six local fire departments, medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and a management team to ensure everyone works in harmony.
Shortly after a resident called 911 to report the blaze early Friday afternoon – around the same time a fire spotter pilot reported smoke over the area – local DNR firefighters and other nearby services converged nearby, hoping to put it out before it got out of hand.
When initial efforts eliminated the force of fire, the DNR Incident Management Team reconvened in Atlanta, setting up a command post at the DNR field office in Atlanta, north of the city.
Sometimes responding to non-fire related incidents like the Flint water crisis or a COVID-19 vaccination event, the incident management team primarily focuses on a coordinated response to large fires, according to Kerry Heckman, public information manager for the team.
Team members are trained to quickly coordinate aspects of a large-scale crisis and “bring order out of chaos,” Heckman said.
Team members in assigned roles decide each day’s tactics, determine what resources the firefighters will need, make sure everyone knows their role, and manage logistics like feeding everyone.
BIG FIRE, BIG EFFORT
After the blaze was reported at 12:40 a.m. on Friday, firefighters worked until about 11 p.m., followed by a reduced night shift to keep an eye on the burn while others rested, said Heckman.
At morning briefings on the following days – held in a garage to accommodate a large crowd – the management team briefed everyone involved in the effort on the plan for the day.
A device that functioned as an oversized hotspot, brought from a DNR office in Roscommon, provided temporary mobile phone coverage in the remote area so firefighters and other workers could communicate from the fire area.
Unable, for safety reasons, to advance in front of the fire as the wind blew it to the north, firefighters worked on the flanks of the fire, digging trenches and spraying it with water where the road conditions allowed the passage of the local firefighters’ tank trucks.
Four Fire Boss firefighter planes and a helicopter dropped water where the fire burned most intensely.
On Monday, drone operators used infrared cameras to detect hot spots as firefighters advanced the perimeter around the blaze, which had roamed the banks of the Black River and Stuart Creek.
On Tuesday, a small crew of firefighters built the last remaining boundary of the blaze, working in a remote, swampy part of the woods at the northern end of the blaze.
By the end of the day on Tuesday, the incident management team was packing up and heading home, leaving the final fire response to local workers.
Throughout the fire response, local businesses and residents showed warmth and support for those battling the Blue Lakes Fire, Heckman said.
Residents regularly stopped by the incident command post, dropping off snacks or thank-you notes. Restaurants pitched in to ensure firefighters ate three meals a day.
The Montmorency County emergency manager helped the management team connect with local sources, such as road commission workers who sprinkled brine on gravel roads near the fire to reduce dust raised by a constant stream of fire vehicles.
As local firefighters fought alongside their DNR counterparts, police manned roadblocks to keep curious residents safe, and local conservation officers pulled kayakers and a fisherman in the fire area out of harm’s way.
‘WE RATHER NOT’
Fire investigators were able to find the tree which they believe was struck by lightning on Wednesday, starting the fire, Heckman said.
Fire can smolder inside a tree for days as nearby leaves and grasses dry out, until a branch falls to the ground, “and then it lifts off,” she said. .
High fire danger conditions persist and residents should exercise caution even with recreational campfires, Operations Commander Steven Cameron said.
The people who fight the fires love what they do, and the incident management team will come back if need be – but, Cameron said, “we’d rather not.”
So far this year, the DNR has responded to 133 wildfires statewide — including the Blue Lakes Fire — which have burned a total of 3,089 acres.
The 162 wildfires managed by the DNR this time last year have burned half an acre.
In 1981, the Canada Creek Fire burned 1,458 acres in Montmorency County.
Michigan’s most recent large wildfire, the Duck Lake Fire in 2012, burned more than 21,000 acres in Luce County, according to the DNR.