GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - In his office in the woods near Allegan, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fire Officer Paul Rogers studies a computer program that shows him where the wildfire danger is. "The whole southern Michigan is a tinder box," he tells visitors.
It is fire weather in most of Michigan. Unusually dry conditions should be a worry for anybody with a home, cottage or favorite vacation spot in Michigan's forests.
Even worse, Target 8 Investigators discovered an unpublicized internal government audit that raises a question about whether the DNR's firefighting program is up to the job.
Decades of budget cuts have left it with 70 fire officers for the entire state. There should be a minimum of 117 -- and an optimum of 142 -- according to the audit report.
It's already having an impact.
In May a fire burned 21,000 acres near Newberry in the Upper Peninsula, destroying 47 homes and cottages, a motel and a store, as well as 85 garages, outbuildings and campers. Michigan spent some $3.5 million to put it out, getting help from two other states and the National Guard before the embers died.
"Well, that was part of the issue," said Scott Heather, who runs the DNR Wildfire Program . "Because we were spread so thin our staff was shorthanded when the fire first took off."
The strategy in fighting wildfires is to get to them fast and keep them small.
"If we can keep a fire 10 acres or smaller we can typically contain it with our initial attack," said Heather. "Once it gets past 10 acres it's difficult to do that and that's when they often turn into larger fires."
The declining number of fire officers has closed a number of offices making response times longer, increasing the likelihood that a small fire will get out of control.
The main means of controlling a wildfire is to use bulldozers to plow a path around the fire, clearing away stuff that burns so the fire will burn itself out within a controlled acreage.
The audit also found 70% of the DNR's 300+ pieces of fire equipment are past the age of replacement.
At the Allegan County fire station, two bulldozers, one built in the 1970s and the other in the 1980s, are the main line of defense against fire. Of the older dozer, Heather said, "John Deere hasn't made these for a long time."
It had to be completely refurbished in the '90s. "Trying to get parts for it is a problem now," he said.
Heather also worries that older equipment will stop working during a fire, putting the operator at risk from approaching flames and smoke.
In 1997, a state legislator created a task force to study what the DNR needed to be the primary agency responsible for wildfires. The study recommended the staffing level of 117 minimum/142 optimum.
But as state revenue declined so did the budget, and cuts continued without a study of actual need. That reduced the level of fire officers to the current 70.
Over the years, rural fire departments have gotten better equipment and today handle most of the wildfires that happen on wild lands around the state. But local firefighters can only do so much and most lack the heavy equipment the DNR brings to the fire.
The UP fire in May got the attention of Gov. Rick Snyder and some lawmakers who have asked the DNR to once again study just how many fire officers it needs and create a new "business plan."
In the meantime each day without rain increases the danger of wildfires all over the state. Scott Heather worries his short-handed department won't be able to fight more than one big wildfire at a time.
"If it's a fire that's going to require more than one or two rigs on scene we're not going to catch it," he said.
A donation account has been set up to help the family with its search to find a missing loved one.
Wind chills will be in the single figures Thursday, with snowfall totals in the 1- to 3-inch range.
The passenger in a pickup truck that slid off U.S. 31 and rolled over told 24 Hour News 8 that watching the video of the crash is "heart-wrenching."