GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As a wildfire rages up north, the Department of Natural Resources is sounding the alarm about extreme fire danger in West Michigan and across the state.
The high risk comes after a dry spell lasting for weeks. West Michigan has only seen less than a tenth of an inch of rain since May 9.
Twenty-six days of dry conditions is the second longest stretch in West Michigan’s history. If it lasts for just over another week, the stretch would be the longest in our area’s history.
“We want to make sure that people understand that it is a very dangerous situation right now when it comes to fire in Michigan and to use extreme caution,” said Kerry Heckman, the public information officer for the Michigan DNR’ incident management team.
Northern Michigan is seeing the danger firsthand. The Grayling fire in Crawford County now covers 2,400 acres, according to the latest update Sunday afternoon from the DNR.
Firefighters are making progress though. The DNR said Sunday the fire is 85% contained. Evacuation orders were lifted Saturday night, but local roads remain closed to give crews the space to fight the blaze.
Crews have also been dealing with a forest fire in Iosco County this weekend. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Saturday night that multiple agencies were responding to a fire between 250 and 300 acres. Five people were evacuated due to the blaze, according to the governor’s office.
Because of the abnormally dry conditions, officials fear wildfires can easily happen again.
“When we have extreme fire danger, that means that fire not only is going to start easily but it is going to grow and have active behavior very quickly,” said Debra-Ann Brabazon, the public affairs officer for Huron-Mainstee National Forests.
Heckman said the DNR hasn’t seen fire danger at some of these levels in more than 25 years.
“We’re in pretty unprecedented conditions for this time of year as far as it relates to extreme fire danger,” she said. “It takes very little right now for anything to become a significant wildfire.”
Brabazon, who has lived in Michigan for 18 years, agreed with Heckman.
“I’ve seen some summers where we’ve gotten extreme,” she said. “I have never seen extreme this long in the spring.”
The DNR said Sunday the wildfire in Crawford County was caused by a campfire on private property.
“Before we’re striking that match, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we really need a campfire right now?’ Brabazon said.
While the state is not banning campfires, the DNR wants people to use extreme caution if doing so.
“Make sure you have a water source nearby,” Heckman said. “Make sure you have a rake and a shovel and something you can quickly extinguish any flames with. Make sure you extinguish the fire fully before you leave it unattended. That means not just dousing it with water but stirring it and putting more water on it.”
Heckman also said it’s important to ensure the embers are out and that fire rings are cool to the touch.
Brabazon recommended remembering the phrase, ‘Drown, stir, feel, repeat.”
“Make sure you’re pouring water on very slowly,” Brabazon said. “You’re stirring the embers, letting all that heat come out. You’re gonna hear cracking, popping, hissing. You don’t want your fire to continue talking; you want to continue putting more water on it.”
Taking the time to put your campfire out will make the difference, Brabazon said. Don’t forget about any charcoal in the grill either.
“You need to make sure you’re also taking the time to put water on that,” she added. “You’d be surprised what could potentially happen to carry that heat and that fire from inside that grill out into the wildland.”
Brabazon also suggested keeping the fire small and never leaving it unattended.
“Don’t think it’s burned down to ash or it’s going to go out on its own, I’m gonna go into my tent or camper for the night,” Brabazon said. “That is considered abandoning a campfire.”
“If you lit it, stay with it,” she concluded.
It’s not just campfires — wildfires can start in other unexpected ways.
“A wildfire can be caused by vehicles, by somebody who is pulling a trailer and has a chain from a hitch that is dragging on the concrete and shoots sparks,” Heckman said. “It can be caused by a blade on a lawnmower hitting a rock and causing a spark.”
Brabazon also said it’s dangerous to throw a cigarette out of your car.
“Because it’s so dry, those embers from that cigarette butt could easily light the vegetation on the side of the road,” she said.
As crews continue to battle the wildfire up north, Brabazon wants people to understand all it takes for a disaster to happen is a spark.
“The risk of a wildfire is a very terrifying thing,” she said. “While we are often bombarded by images of catastrophic fires from out west, the bottom line is those things could very easily happen here.”
She also hopes people remember the devastation that could result from not being cautious with campfires. “There are other countless people you have never met that will be impacted by your actions,” she said. “They could lose their homes. They could lose their lives.”