BRITTLE WILDFIRE – About 5,600 acres burned in the Huron-Manistee National Forest April 23 after a prescribed fire became out of control. The wildfire was contained 99 percent within the national forest and no structures were lost.

EAST TAWAS – If there’s one governmental entity that plans for everything, it’s the U.S. Forest Service. 

But sometimes Mother Nature throws a wrench into those plans.

Forest Service officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture held an open house at the East Tawas Community Center Friday to discuss the causes of the Brittle Prescribed Fire Escape on April 23 and proposed changes to their prescribed fire program moving forward.

What was released Friday was the “Brittle Prescribed Fire Draft Facilitated Learning Analysis.” And what is a Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA), you may ask?

It is a tool the Forest Service uses to help understand the events, decisions, and actions leading up to this prescribed burn wildlife declaration.

“The intent of the Brittle FLA is to teach and further build upon the Forest Service’s Learning Culture,” according to the draft document. “The Final FLA is under review at the Washington Office at this time.

“It will be published online when complete and the Huron-Manistee National Forests will make that link available to everyone as soon as we get it.”

So what happened?

According to officials, the Brittle “Landscape Fuels Reduction Project” was developed to reduce the risk to “one of the most dangerous wildlife prone areas in the entire Eastern Region.” The issue goes back to when glaciers covered this area tens of thousands of years ago. When the glaciers moved in an eventually receded from the Great Lakes region, they stripped most of the topsoil from this region and left sand over the bedrock.

Red pine and jack pine thrives in this environment – two tree species that the Forest Service manages for two different reasons, red pine for timber harvests and jack pine for the Kirtland’s warbler.

“You live in a tinder box,” said Leslie Aurirmmo, forest supervisor with the Forest Service. “This is one of the most fire prone areas in the United States.

“I was the agency supervisor who approved the prescribed burn. We know it’s risky to do prescribed burns, but it’s also risky to do nothing.”

Ben Wiese, district ranger with the Forest Service, said fire is a natural part of this ecosystem. And the problem is two-fold, he said: this part of the state has sand that doesn’t hold moisture very well and the Sunrise Side annually receives a low amount of rainfall.

Wiese said the forest service has “cored” trees over the years “so we can age the trees and see how fast they grow.” And they have some trees  that are so old they call them legacy trees.

“We have an idea of what the forest fires were like a couple of hundred years ago,” he said. “About every decade, there was a fire, a low intensity fire – otherwise the trees would have died. The ecosystem evolved as the plants regenerated.”

According to Wiese, one of the worst wildlifes to hit this area was in 1871 when a large portion of Michigan burned including what was then named the Huron National Forest. That was a during a time of the lumbering era in the state when much of the land was cleared and where was “a lot of slash on the ground.”

Slash is the term used to describe the treetops, limbs and other woody material left behind after a timber harvest.

Official said no structures were lost during the April 23 wildfire, which burned about 5,600 acres. They said much of that can be traced to work clearing lands of potential wildfire hazards around subdivisions prior to the fire.

So how did the prescribed fire get out of hand?  

According to the draft document, “The Brittle Units 20 and 23 met the Prescribed Fire plan prescription at the time of ignition, 10:38 a.m.” Helicopters were brought in to ignite the prescribed fire by using a machine on board that is best described as shooting inflamed ping pong balls onto the ground.

“The Forest Service did have permission for a variance to burn in lower relative humidities (variance requested due to out of prescription values on low end later in the day according to spot weather forecast, rationale used was previous week of cold weather, light snow, previous fire behavior seen day before,” the draft document continues.

“Around 11:20 a.m., the prescribed fire experienced a strong and unpredicted wind push from the North (winds were forecasted to be from the West all day). As a result, flanking fire turned into a head fire in places when the northerly push was experienced for that one-hour window. This resulted in spot fires that caused control issues, which led to the wildfire declaration at 2:16 p.m.”

John Norton-Jensen, zone fire management officer with the Forest Service said burnt pine needles will lay in the direction the fire was heading. In one area of the national forest, the pine needles were laying in three directions, indicating the shifting winds at the time of the fire.

He also said Brittle Units 20 and 23 have had prescribed burns and thinning twice before.

He was especially thankful of all the responding groups, fire departments, law enforcement and other emergency crews who works closely together in respond to the wildfire.

Why use prescribed fires at all?

According to the draft document, “Prescribed Fire utilization is one of the best ways we can provide for firefighter and public safety. By treating hazardous fuels through prescribed fire and vegetation management in a proactive manner, we will have much higher chances of success in stopping large, destructive wildfires that threaten timber, wildlife, infrastructure, and homes.”

As for the changes the Forest Service is looking to its Prescribed Fire Program moving forward:

• More on-site monitoring for fuels dryness and rain accumulation with less dependance on Remote Automated Weather Stations that generate Fire Danger Warnings.

• Seek to improve communication with our National Weather Service partners and provide more feedback data on forecasts if they are not representative of current conditions.

• Evaluate the effectiveness of our “days since rain” to indicate dryness, and switch to a better evaluation tool.

• We are evaluating our Prescribed Fire Plans and making changes to include more restrictive prescriptions with regards to Haines Index, wind gusts and relative humidities.

• Aerial Firing Operations will be examined and improved, for example air speed requirements and more efficient firing machine operation.

Just 14 people attended Friday’s open house.

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