Wildfire season two weeks early, says DNR
ARENAC COUNTY — Wildfire season has descended upon Michigan early this year, as unseasonable temperatures combined with low snowfall this winter have dried out grass and wood earlier than usual.
According to Chris Damvelt, the Department of Natural Resources’ fire supervisor for the Gladwin management unit, a stray ember or match from a person burning yard waste is all it takes to ignite a field, or clumps of dead sticks.
Damvelt said normally heavy snowfall will compress dry grass and sticks on the ground, slowing the drying process and retaining moisure more effectively. Without snow on the ground much of the winter, however, grass has been left standing tall and dry.
“The grass in the fields is not compacted, so it dries out really fast,” Damvelt said. “So when someone is cleaning up their yard, raking and clearing leaves, all it takes is one little spark and away we go.”
Even when rain falls on grass or sticks, he said it would dry out again within hours. With flammable materials spread out without the snowfall, warm temperatures and breezes are drying them out faster and making rainfall less effective.
“Rain does help, but we could have a rain shower this morning, and those fields could burn this afternoon,” Damvelt said.
Wildfires have already been reported within Damvelt’s six-county district, which encompasses Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Midland, and Isabella counties. Damvelt said three were called in just last weekend.
The wildfire season is about two or three weeks ahead of schedule, he said, though it will probably last until sometime in May, much as it normally would. Since people cause 95 percent of all wildfires in Michigan, Damvelt said it was important for people to take precautions with their burns.
He said the state is offering free burn permits online and over the phone for residents, and lists whether or not conditions are right for a burn to stay under control. Damvelt also suggested clearing space out as much as possible around the burn site to try and prevent it from spreading, and to keep it small and controllable.
He also suggested keeping tools on hand to put out the fire immediately if necessary, including a shovel, rake, water hose, and a bucket of water.
If a fire gets out of control, he urged people to call 911 as soon as possible, before trying to get it under control themselves.
“Too many times people think they can get the fire under control, but by then it gets bigger and they get hurt,” Damvelt said. “So they should call the fire department and get things under control.”
“If it’s a grass fire, you don’t want to get in front of it,” he added.
According to Damvelt, while the state will not normally ticket a person for burning material if they have a permit and it’s a burn day, if the fire gets out of control the person will be liable for any damages the wildfire causes. He added they could be ticketed for the cost of putting out the fire.
Burn permits can be secured electronically through the website www.michigan.gov/burnpermit or over the phone at 866-922-2876. The website also links to a map showing where burns are permitted for any given day.