U.P. wildfire season off to ‘snow’ start

MARQUETTE – As warmer weather slowly begins to reach the Upper Peninsula, Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials are reminding the public about steps to take to reduce wildfire danger.

Keith Murphy, a DNR fire management specialist in Marquette, said no fires have yet occurred this spring in the U.P., but he anticipates conditions conducive to the start of the wildfire season will arrive in the southern parts of the peninsula by the end of next week.

“That’s what we’re thinking now with the weather forecast this week,” Murphy said Monday.

Colder temperatures and rain showers are predicted over the region for the next several days.

So far this spring, there have been 20 wildfires in the Lower Peninsula, burning a total of 99.4 acres. Half of those blazes were caused by debris burning; 20 percent from campfires; 10 percent from equipment; 5 percent by electric lines; 5 percent from arson and 10 percent had miscellaneous causes.

Most of the state’s wildfires occur from April through June. In a typical year, Murphy said some fires are reported by the second week of March in the southern U.P.

Depending on the weather, the fire season may be shorter this season.

“The spring (fire) season may be later because we started so late,” Murphy said. “It all depends on our spring rains.”

By the time widespread suitable fire conditions arrive, it may be closer to spring “green up,” which signals the end of the spring wildfire season.

Last winter’s cold, late spring also produced a slow start to the wildfire season. By May 8, the U.P. had produced a total of eight wildfires, consuming a total of just over 50 acres.

By the first week of April 2012 – after a winter of below-average snowfall and dry conditions at hand – a half-dozen small wildfires had broken out in fields in Delta County, which died out quickly when they reached the woodlands. The largest of these fires reached roughly 16 acres.

“Even though it’s been a long winter, fire season will show up,” Murphy said.

DNR officials were reminding the public burn permits are required for brush or debris burning. Decisions are made by 10 a.m. daily whether the DNR will be issuing permits that day, based on conditions.

“One out of three wildfires in Michigan is caused by someone burning debris who did not take proper precautions or obtain a burn permit,” Paul Kollmeyer, a resource protection manager within the DNR’s Forest Resources Division, said in a news release. “Many people look outside and think the snow and spring rains have taken the edge off the wildfire danger.”

That’s not the case, Kollmeyer said.

“The dried leaves, needles and brown grass from last year are still there,” Kollmeyer said. “When the weather is warm, folks want to get out and clean up their yards. They don’t realize that all it takes is one strong wind gust catching an ember to ignite a wildfire.”

Tips the DNR offered the public to lessen the risk of wildfire danger to homes and property included:

  • Obtain a burn permit before burning brush or debris.
  • Clear leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks, which prevents embers from igniting homes.
  • Keep lawns watered and maintained. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity.
  • Remove fuel within 3 to 5 feet of a home’s foundation and out-buildings, including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t let it touch a house, deck or porch.
  • Remove dead vegetation surrounding homes, within the 30- to 100-foot area.
  • Wildfire can spread to treetops. If there are large trees on property, prune them so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet high.
  • Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Chip or mulch these items quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
  • When planting, choose slow-growing, carefully placed shrubs and trees so the area can be more easily maintained.
  • Landscape with native and less flammable plants. For more information about making fire wise landscaping choices, visit www.firewise.msu.edu.

U.P. residents can obtain a free burn permit by visiting www.michigan.gov/burnpermit. For more tips on safeguarding your home and property from wildfire risk, visit www.michigan.gov/preventwildfires.