Areas reopen around Grayling fire, now more than 90 percent contained

Jun. 5—GRAYLING — The blaze that consumed 2,400 acres of mostly jack pine forest near Grayling was about 90 percent contained on Monday as crews continued their suppression efforts.

"We've got crews working today to finish the containment line around the fire," said Kathleen Lavey, communications specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The cooler weather helped, and once the Wilderness Trail Fire is completely contained, the next step will be dousing hot spots to make sure the area is safe to reopen to the public.

The source of the fire was a campfire on private property, officials have said.

Beth Fults, public information officer with the DNR, said citizens can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and/or 90 days in jail. They can also be liable for costs and damages from the fire, she said.

Fults said the DNR has charged people in the past. She did not have information on whether this fire will result in charges.

The fire started Saturday in Grayling Township and had officials restricting airspace in a five-mile perimeter above the fire, closing I-75 for several hours and temporarily evacuating people from their homes.

No injuries were reported, but preliminary estimates from the DNR are that three outbuildings were destroyed and dozens of homes, vehicles, campers, boats and outbuildings were threatened.

Recreation areas at Kneff Lake and Staley Lake were reopened Monday evening, as was rail traffic after the rail tracks north of 4 Mile Road were inspected. Roads within the 2,400-acre fire area will reopen Tuesday, according to officials, who also warned travelers to be wary of burn zones.

"Please avoid the area if possible," Mike Janisse, commander of the DNR Incident Management Team, requested in a press statement. Because of danger from dead trees and still-warm spots on the ground, travelers should stay on roads and keep pets leashed, the statement read.

"A newly burned area can be very interesting to look at, but make sure you stay a safe distance away from the burned area," said Janisse.

Fire danger has been extreme throughout the state for several weeks. The dryness currently being seeing is unprecedented, and over Memorial Day weekend there were several fires that took off as a result of campfires, according to the DNR.

Nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people and burning yard debris is the top wildfire cause in Michigan. The DNR urges people to keep a water source nearby and never leave fires unattended.

While a burn ban is not in place the DNR is not issuing any burn permits for burning yard debris. People may still have fires for cooking or recreation — as long as they are contained in a pit or fire ring. A burn ban must come in the form of a proclamation from the governor.

The largest wildfire in Michigan was the Seney Fire in the Upper Peninsula, which in 1976 burned through 72,000 acres. The second largest was the 25,000-acre Mack Lake Fire in lower Michigan near Grayling. Coming in third was the 21,458-acre Duck Lake Fire in 2012, also in the Upper Peninsula.

The jack pine relies on fire to survive. While it is easily killed by fire, its coated cones need fire in order to open and release seeds. Without a fire to open the cones, jack pine would be replaced by another species, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Kirtland's Warbler, the rarest songbird in North America, nests on the ground and only breeds in young jack pine forests. The bird was nearly extinct about 50 years ago but conservation efforts have brought them back.

"There are good benefits to a fire in a place like this, but there are also negative consequences," Fults said, such as danger to people and structures.

Animals leave the area of a forest fire and will come back when the forest greens up — which can happen in just one week, Fults said.

"In about a week if you were to go back you would be amazed at how green it is," she said. "The forest floor regenerates itself and it's pretty phenomenal to see."