Forest fires a concern for DNR

HOUGHTON – The Copper Country is green again. Trees and brush are absorbing moisture, and the worst of the spring wildfire season is behind us. But some areas are still dangerously dry, according to Department of Natural Resources Fire Management Specialist Keith Murphy, and there are still some restrictions on burn permits for yard waste and brush.

“Our pine areas are still a concern,” said Murphy, of the DNR’s Marquette office. “It’s not the entire U.P. anymore that’s super dry, but needle moisture is still way down.”

Later in the summer, usually July and August, drought can lead to a second high-risk season, Murphy said.

As of Wednesday, it’s legal to burn after 6 p.m. in Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga and Ontonagon counties, with the exception of Torch Lake Township in Houghton County, where permission must be obtained from local fire departments. No paper permits are required from the DNR.

But according to Murphy, the permit situation can change from day to day, so it’s important to check before burning. Updates are made daily to the DNR’s burn permit site, michigan.gov/burnpermit. Also, he noted, most cities, towns and villages have their own rules that further limit burning.

Murphy said the burn permit rules aren’t the same as the fire danger status that’s posted outside DNR offices. Those aren’t legally binding, but indicate wildfire potential. At high and above, he said, DNR offices begin to bring employees in to offices, where they’re readily available for dispatch to fires.

Lately, “We’ve had them at low to moderate, which means we’re not as likely to have fire starts,” Murphy said.

There are separate rules for trash burning, and for campfires, Murphy said. Those fires are not regulated by standard burn bans, though the governor can declare total burn bans in extreme situations.

Trash fires must be contained in an incinerator or burn barrel with a lid with no bigger than 3/4 inch holes. Also, since 2012, there are laws against burning plastics and other toxic items. Essentially, “just paper and cardboard” are allowed, Murphy said.

Campfires, which the DNR defines as fires for cooking or warming purposes, are a common cause of wildfires. Usually, he said, that happens when campfires aren’t properly extinguished or when someone leaves a fire unattended.

“It just takes one ember to get out of the fire pit for it to take off,” he said.

When you leave a fire, he said, “you need to stir that pit up as much as you can, turn any logs over and wet it all down. Make sure it’s out before you leave, and rake down the soil around the pit so it won’t spread.”

It’s important to keep water and hand tools close at hand while the fire is burning, he added, and to limit the size of your fire. All fires, Murphy said, should have a fire ring to contain them, and a dirt area around the perimeter with grass and leaves raked away. No matter what the conditions, he said, always use common sense.

“At any time, if your fire escapes you’re liable,” he said. “You could get a ticket, or be billed for fire suppression costs from the DNR or local fire departments. Civilly, if you burn on a neighbors property, maybe burn a garage down, there could be a lawsuit.”

Murphy said the DNR has officers available to meet with groups interested in learning more about fire prevention. In the Copper Country, contact the Baraga DNR office to learn more, at 906-353-6651.

“We can have Smokey the Bear show up,” Murphy said.