The help of Michigan firefighters was “essential” in the battles waged against historic wildfires in the western United States this year.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources dispatched teams and seven fire engines west this summer and fall to help fight raging fires that burned millions of acres in California, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming. Michigan’s experts filled 90 out-of-state assignments working on direct fire lines, management teams and in various leadership positions.
“Their help was essential,” the DNR said in a news release.
Spurred by hot, dry conditions, wildfires have burned more than 8 million acres across western landscapes. Record-setting blazes threatened homes, businesses and livestock, and sometimes forced quick evacuations of towns and cities.
COVID-19 delayed Michigan’s response to out-of-state fires until August.
Two DNR firefighters endured long days and 90-degree heat while wearing up to 40 pounds of equipment to assist with the Lake Fire near Santa Clarita, Calif. in August.
Paul Dunn and Ben Osterland arrived at the fire scene on Aug. 24. Lake Fire burned more than 31,000 acres of big-cone Douglas fir, oak and gray pine between Aug. 12 and Sept. 28.
The Michigan duo was assigned to mop-up duties, which involved trekking up and down a mountain where the fire had already passed to look for hot spots, remove hoses and restore the landscape to its natural state.
For Dunn, the experience offered a chance to take in the beauty of the west, and an opportunity to build firefighting skills he can apply to wildfire fighting in Michigan. He has fought Michigan wildfires for 15 years, and has been a full-time staffer at the DNR for two years.
“Before I was full-time, I did this for fun on my days off from my other jobs in Michigan,” Dunn said. “Coming out to California is like a big bonus. You get to see the country. You meet a lot of good people from all over.”
The Bobcat Fire. The Brattain Fire. The Dolan Fire. A pair of Michiganders helped manage all three.
In early September, DNR staffers Glenn Palmgren and Keith Murphy who are part of an interagency Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team were sent to Sacramento to work on emerging fires as needed.
Their first assignment was the Bobcat Fire in suburban Los Angeles. The fire ignited on Sept. 6 and burned more than 115,000 acres, destroying or damaging more than 170 homes and structures.
“That was the most intense incident management experience that (Murphy) and I have ever had, with tens of thousands of homes being threatened,” Palmgren said.
Human life is always the first priority while firefighting, and then property like homes and businesses.
“We can’t put the fire out during the most extreme conditions,” Palmgren said. “We’re trying to protect people and their homes. It’s a matter of meeting the highest priorities that we can while trying to stop the fire.”
As the Bobcat Fire continued to spread, the Type 2 team was replaced by a Type 1 team qualified to handle the complex situation. Palmgren and Murphy were reassigned to the Brattain Fire Paisley, Oregon.
The Brattain Fire started on Sept. 7 and burned more than 50,000 acres as firefighters worked to cope with extremely dry conditions and high winds.
With the nearby town secure, the priority in that fire became protecting timber and grazing land that provides food for cattle, Palmgren said.
They spent two weeks in Oregon, returned home and then went west again a couple weeks later. They were assigned to the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., which has burned about 125,000 acres since it was reported on Aug. 18.
Palmgren said he relishes the challenge of diving into a new fire situation.
“It’s everything from saving people’s lives to saving their livelihoods and their property,” he said. “And it helps us keep our own skills sharp. We learn valuable lessons that can help us do a better job here in Michigan.”
Maps layered with data are needed for firefighters to assess wildfires and get where they need to be.
Michigan’s Paige Gebhardt, a resource analyst for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division went California is September where she was part of the team that mapped the 1-million-acre August Complex fire. In October, she joined the team mapping the 176,000-acre Mullen Fire near Centennial, Wyo.
As the mapping technology moves from paper to digital, people like Gebhardt can enter data in real time, giving firefighters on the ground up-to-the-minute data.
Gebhardt also created “story maps” that combine informational text and photos with online maps for the public.
Michigan is compensated for all expenses related to out-of-state fire assignments, and there are always firefighters ready at home.
“Out-of-state assignments are just a great way for the team to build skills,” said Dan Laux, fire section chief for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. “These assignments are a win for the states that need help and for our DNR team.”
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