2013-03-14 / Outdoors

DNR: Fire crews dedicated to area safety


Fire officers discuss plans while working to suppress a wildfire in the Upper Peninsula. Highly skilled officers from the Department of Natural Resources and other organizations are specially trained to understand how weather and environment affect fire behavior. 
Courtesy photo Fire officers discuss plans while working to suppress a wildfire in the Upper Peninsula. Highly skilled officers from the Department of Natural Resources and other organizations are specially trained to understand how weather and environment affect fire behavior. Courtesy photo LANSING – 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. “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.”

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.

“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 firesuppression 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.

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 fireprevention 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).

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