By Jon Gaskell
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan can expect more wildfires this year, officials warn.
The state’s Department of Natural Resources is predicting a greater number of forest fires and more acres burned as a result of an unusually warm winter.
To make matters worse, long-term shrinking of firefighting resources has reduced the state’s capacity to quell blazes, according to department Director Rodney Stokes.
The department’s fire supervisor Scott Heather said Michigan is already seeing blazes much earlier than usual.
“Usually for the Lower Peninsula, the season for fires begins around the third week of March,” Heather said. “This year, the season started at the beginning of March.
“For the Upper Peninsula, fire season usually begins in early April but we’ve been seeing fires there already.”
So far in 2012, state fire officers have responded to 37 wildfires that burned a total of 120 acres. At this point last year, no fires had occurred.
Heather said the risk of wildfire is exacerbated by this winter’s lack of snowfall. Without heavy snows to pack them down, tall grasses that fuel fires are primed to ignite.
“These grasses are higher than usual and more exposed than usual,” Heather said. “The more surface area and the more oxygen that gets in there, the greater chance that a spark could start a serious fire.”
But grasses aren’t the only source of fuel experts worry about.
Late-winter storms left forest floors covered with branches said Mike Schira, Michigan State University Extension educator for Houghton and Keweenaw counties.
Without significant rain over the coming weeks, that fuel source could lead to more intense fires than from grasses alone.
Ranger Steve Goldman said the same conditions are present in the million-acre Huron-Manistee National Forest in the northern Lower Peninsula.
“We are getting fires early and in areas where we usually don’t see fires,” Goldman said. “This year the season started early, it started hotter and it started dryer. It’s going to be a challenging year.”
Goldman said he is especially concerned about limbs and branches blown down from recent storms. Not only can they cause more intense and dangerous crown fires, but they often impede access for fire crews trying to put out blazes.
“When you get these large branches, they serve as a ladder for the fire to climb to the crown of trees,” Goldman said. “They are also blocking a lot of the access we would need to get equipment to fires.
“A crew can suppress a ground fire quickly if it gets there in time, but once it gets to be a crown fire and the flames reach 30-100 feet, nothing can stop it. We would be forced to evacuate the area.”
If wildfires are a serious problem this year, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources may lack the resources to combat them. According to Heather, the department has made steady cuts to fire officers over the past 15 years, going from 83 in 1997 to only 54 now.
“In 1997, we not only had more officers, we would bring in 42 temporary officers to help during spring fire season. Now we have no seasonal help.
“What usually happens is when conditions are right, there are multiple fires in different areas of the state. Not only do we have fewer officers to deal with the fires, we have closed several field offices. That means a longer dispatch time and a delay in getting to the fires,” Heather said.
“We are stretched thin,” Heather said.