EAST TAWAS – From local firefighters, to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, there are numerous forces at work every day in Iosco County, striving to protect people and their property, as well as public lands.
With all these assets available, it is still crucial that residents and visitors also do their part when it comes to fire prevention – not only for their own selves and property, but also for the safety of others.
With spring now in full swing, this means that extra precautions must be taken as people start cleaning up their yard debris and begin enjoying such beloved traditions as gathering around a campfire with friends.
As for the former, when the winter snow melts and the warmer temperatures return, it doesn’t take long before people can be seen collecting leaves, grass clippings, tree trimmings and the like from their lawns. Although there have been some rainy days as of late in Iosco County, this time of year can also be dry and windy, which only increases the ability of flames to grow. A bit of singed grass around one’s burning area may not seem too alarming but, in conditions such as these, the risk of a catastrophe – including the fire spreading to nearby homes/other structures – is very real.
When East Tawas Fire Department (ETFD) Chief Bill Deckett was asked about any upticks in outside fires when the warmer seasons roll around, he said that statewide, there is always a big increase in springtime outdoor fires.
He notes that the first thing people should do is visit the state website, to see if burning is even allowed that day. This and other related information from the DNR, which is responsible for all burn permit issuances, can be found at www.michigan.gov/burnpermit or www2.dnr.state.mi.us/burnpermits/.
“If you are burning, keep the fire small and have a source of water nearby to use if the fire starts to get out of control,” said Deckett, who has served as ETFD’s fire chief since 1988.
He adds that if the website shows there is to be no burning, this refers to such actions as burning leaves or a brush pile. “You can still have a small bonfire or cooking fire as long as it is contained. The only time you can’t have those (or do things like smoke in the forest) is during a complete burning ban, which there have only been a couple in the past 20 years.”
According to the DNR website, burn permits are not needed, either, when it comes to cooking or recreational campfires. In areas where burning is not prohibited by local ordinances or air quality laws, a permit isn’t necessary if there is continuous snow cover on the ground. Also, no permit is required when burning household paper materials in a covered metal or masonry container with openings no larger than ¾ inches.
The DNR advises to never burn demolition debris, construction materials, automotive parts or household trash which contains plastic, rubber, foam, chemically treated wood, textiles, electronics, chemicals or hazardous materials. What people can burn, are leaves, grass, limbs, brush, stumps and evergreen needles, as well as household paper materials which do not contain hazardous items.
The DNR websites also allow visitors to view a map of Michigan counties with burn permit information. If “yes” appears in the “Burning Permits Issued” column on your county, you are authorized to burn that day. This serves as your burn permit, and you don’t need to print anything.
Burn permits are only available from the DNR for counties in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula. In the southern Lower Peninsula, permits may be obtained from the local fire department or local governing body. For more information, call 866-922-BURN (866-922-2876).
A similar question about increased fire activity in the springtime was also posed to Joshua Veal, the USDA Forest Service’s public affairs officer for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
Veal says his department notices that wildfires begin when the snow has melted, and the flashy fuels of grass and woody debris start to dry. This continues through the year, until it snows and gets cold for a length of time. “The pattern of fire causes tend to follow, debris burning in spring, campfires in June, July, and August, with an overlap of fireworks in late June to mid-July and then back to campfires and warming fires and debris burning as fall yard work and hunting starts.”
According to the USDA Forest Service, the Huron Shores District is the eastern most district on the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The elevation ranges from 850 to 1,000 feet in the acres managed by the Huron Shores Ranger District, which is stationed in Oscoda.
Veal says this district is comprised of roughly 228,173 acres of land which is managed for multiple benefits, including recreation, water and wildlife habitat.
As for how susceptible the woods is currently, if a fire happened to break out in the forest land, he referenced an incident from March 22. On the west zone (Manistee side) of the forest, the department experienced the Warfield Road Fire, which ended up being 542 acres. “No matter how susceptible the woods are to fire, we always encourage the public to be careful with fire and follow all local burn regulations.”
When the DNR issued one of its News Digest bulletins recently, it also included information for people who use burn barrels.
The bulletin further notes that burning leaves and backyard waste is consistently the number one cause of wildfires.
The DNR has offered the following checklist for improving one’s backyard burn barrel to reduce chances of wildfire:
• Set the barrel on level concrete blocks or a similar hard, nonflammable surface.
• As required for burn barrels, use a cover or screen with holes ¼-inch or smaller to prevent flying embers.
• Set the barrel far away from flammables, such as woodpiles, and trim any overhead tree branches.
• Always keep a water source and shovel nearby, and never leave a fire unattended.
• Before lighting a fire, check the weather. Don’t burn on a dry, windy day.
Although they have provided these suggestions, the DNR says that the safest burn barrel isn’t one at all – it’s a compost bin. Paper, leaves and other biodegradable items which are commonly burned can be composted to create nutrient-rich soil. To learn how, visit Michigan.gov/EGLEcompost. For additional questions, contact DNR Fire Prevention Specialist Paul Rogers, at 616-260-8406.
For those looking to rid their lawns this season of pesky brush and other unsightly debris, Veal – like those from the DNR – says it is safer to chip or compost such material, as opposed to burning it. But if people do opt for the latter, he notes that both the DNR and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) provide directions for proper debris burning.
The details from EGLE – which can be accessed at www.michigan.gov/egle, by typing “open burning” into the search bar – contain a plethora of information on open burning, including alternatives for same.
According to EGLE, this is the burning of unwanted materials, such as paper, trees, brush, leaves, grass and other debris, where smoke and other emissions are released directly into the air. The website reads that open burning pollutes the air and poses a forest fire hazard. The pollution created can irritate eyes and lungs, obscure visibility, soil nearby surfaces, create annoying odors or pose other nuisance or health threats.
While experts may advise against burning lawn debris, unwinding by a campfire is a different story – so long as this, too, is done safely.
“Bonfires are certainly a big part of being outside,” Deckett pointed out. “Building one in a cleared area, inside a pit is safe and very relaxing!”
He says to never use an accelerant, such as gasoline, when starting a bonfire. Once it comes time to leave the site and ensure the fire is out – especially when in the forest – he encourages people to follow Smokey Bear’s tips.
These begin with allowing the campfire to burn out completely, to ashes, if possible. Drown the ashes with lots of water, then use a shovel to stir the ashes and water, while making sure to scrape around the edges of the fire to get everything mixed in. Drown the ashes with water again, then check that the campfire is cold before leaving. This can be done by holding your hand just above the wet ashes. If you feel heat, stir more water into the ashes.
Another way to help remember these steps, is the nearly identical process mentioned by Veal. “The Forest Service asks that people use the Drown, Stir and Feel method of extinguishing their campfires. Drown it with water, stir it with a shovel or a stick, then feel for heat,” he explains. “If you feel heat, repeat the process until there is no more heat.”
Veal says that some of the most common mistakes he has seen, when it comes to fire safety, are people not fully extinguishing them, being careless with the campfire and abandoning the fire.
“People should not have a fire when it is windy,” he continued. “They should have a bucket of water and a shovel available to quickly put out their fire if the wind were to pick up, and never leave the fire unattended.”
Other simple steps people can take prevention wise, to avoid a fire getting out of hand, include never leaving a fire under-attended. “Under-attended means leaving a child to watch the fire while the adult leaves to get something,” Veal says.
“Keep your fire small not tall,” he also recommends. Additionally, “The fuels in your campfire need to fit the criteria for what you are using it for.”
If someone is having a bonfire or burning yard debris and the flames do begin to spread, things can escalate quickly, especially depending on the weather and other factors. So, before even starting a fire, Veal says that people need to have a water source – such as a hose charged with water or a five-gallon bucket – a shovel and/or a rake, and they need to have cleared an area of 10 feet out from around their fire’s exterior edge. “If the fire begins to spread beyond control, immediately use the water and your tools to slow the spread and call the fire department.”
To put this into perspective, “When we teach driving safety for fire trucks, we tell the operator that when approaching a curve, the only time you can slow down is before you get there,” Deckett says. If you enter the curve too fast, you no longer have control; the truck is driving you. “In the case of burning, the analogy is the same.”
He says that if it is too dry or too windy and you start a fire, you no longer have control – you are at the mercy of the fire as it gets away. The only step at that point is to call 9-1-1 and get help coming.
Creating Defensible Space
Aside from protecting both public land and one’s own outdoor spaces, safety tips for the home have also been shared. Throughout the years, one such recommendation has been to create a defensible space outside of the dwelling.
In a nutshell, Deckett says this involves taking steps around the house which will enable a fire department to defend it against an approaching wildfire. When a department moves in ahead of the flames, they will look at a home and have to decide, “Defense-able or not Defense-able,” he explains. “If Defense-able, we would do things like apply a layer of foam to the house and move on. Not Defense-able would mean that we would not give it much chance of surviving a fire so we would move on to the Defense-able homes.”
For a few examples of how to create defensible spaces, both Deckett and Veal say to remove dead leaves, pine needles and other materials from your roof and gutters/eaves. “Sometimes embers flying through the air far ahead of the fire will land on the roof or in the eaves and ignite if it finds fuel,” Deckett elaborated.
He further suggests removing low, dead limbs from trees surrounding your home, along with dead brush, leaves and so on. “The idea is that the fire would drop to the ground around your home and then stop advancing when it runs out of burnable fuel.”
He and Veal each say it is also important to not stack wood against a home or porch. “Again, embers can ignite the pile and start the house on fire,” Deckett added.
Veal says residents should remove anything flammable that touches their home up to five feet, which is considered to be part of the house. Along with paying attention to eaves and cleaning gutters, he also recommends checking screens over the vents in basements and attics.
Veal notes that the benefits of creating a defensible space is that one’s home will be better prepared to survive exposure to a fast-moving wildfire. “An ounce of fire prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
When it comes to protecting a dwelling’s interior – and more importantly, anyone within the residence – smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are among the staples to keep on hand.
With smoke alarms, Deckett says there have been some improvements in recent years, the main one being a 10-year battery. When the alarm is installed, it’s good for 10 years without the homeowner having to remember to put in batteries.
“The recommended life for all detectors is 10 years, so many of the regular battery detectors have out-lived their usefulness. After 10 years, their sensitivity may not be as effective, or they may not operate at all,” Deckett points out.
“The other recent improvement is wireless connectivity. If one alarm goes off, all the alarms in the home activate,” he went on. “This could be a real life saver, especially at night if a fire were to start, say, in the laundry room and you were sleeping upstairs.”
Deckett says another change over the years has been the integration of a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide (CO) detector. If the heat exchanger in one’s furnace fails and is pumping CO into the home, for instance, the odorless, colorless and deadly gas would not set off the smoke alarm; however, a dual unit would alarm.
For those who are unsure where to place a smoke alarm, Deckett says experts recommend having one outside each sleeping area, as well as other locations. Examples are a living area, in the laundry room and off the kitchen, but not so close as to get false alarms each time you cook. “Although a garage sounds like a good spot, if you have a combination fire alarm/CO alarm, the car exhaust would most likely set it off frequently,” he adds.
Deckett says that the ETFD is one of the departments in the county with a smoke detector program, sponsored by the Michigan Bureau of Fire Service, Fire Marshal Division. “If you don’t have a smoke detector, the department will come to your home and do a survey, then install as many basic smoke alarms as needed.”
People may also be wondering how many fire extinguishers they should have in their residence, and where the most crucial areas are that these should be stored.
If used properly, Deckett says extinguishers are an effective tool when a fire is in the incipient or beginning stages. “PASS is the mnemonic used to help you remember how to use an extinguisher. Pull the pin, Aim at the base of the flame, Squeeze the handle, Sweep the extinguisher back and forth at the base of the flame,” he described.
“Experts recommend that if you are not completely comfortable attacking the flames, it is better to use the time to call 911 and quickly and safely exit the burning home,” he says. “If you choose to equip your home with extinguishers, install them in an area where you can easily grab them in case of fire.”
Deckett notes that size matters, as well, with a five-pound extinguisher providing about 16-20 seconds of firefighting capability. “Some fires are more effectively extinguished by other means. For example, a fire in a pan on the stove can be put out by putting a lid on it and removing it from the heat.”