Fire chief offers tips to prevent bushfires | News, Sports, Jobs

News photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Township Fire Chief Mark Hansen is organizing brush firefighting equipment at the station on the department's south side this week. Hansen said there had been an increase in bushfires over the past two weeks.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan's grass and brush fire season is underway and local fire departments have been working to put out these fires.

Local fire officials say with Memorial Day weekend on the horizon and many people lighting campfires and bonfires, they fear more wildfires could break out.

Alpena Township Fire Chief Mark Hansen, who worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a fire officer before accepting this position for the township, said that in early spring, few grass fires were started, but over the last two weeks things have gotten worse.

“At first there was quite a bit of rain, which kept the fires under control, but things are starting to dry up now and we're starting to get more calls,” Hansen said.

Many brush or grass fires are small and easy to put out, but Hansen said a large fire, about 10 acres or more, is more difficult. He said firefighters battling such fires use nontraditional firefighting equipment and deal with more variables than with a typical structure fire.

He explained that smaller firefighting vehicles are used to reach fires that are often deep in the woods, and that chainsaws and other hand tools are needed.

“A structure fire is confined to a general area of ​​origin, but a wildfire can move and rebound because of factors like wind, and (they) are difficult to predict,” he said. “There are no defined limits like there are most of the time in structure fires.”

Hansen said Alpena Township works closely with other local fire departments, as well as the DNR, to fight wildfires when they break out.

He said his staff has trained on the best tactics to use when fighting a brush fire and offers another layer of experience from his encounters while working with the DNR and fighting many grass, brush and forest fires.

When a wildfire is reported, often from the DNR aircraft scouring the area for smoke, they are often deep in the woods and difficult to locate and access.

Hansen said several local departments have brush rigs, which are smaller and designed for off-road travel and navigating heavily vegetated areas when full-size Ford trucks can't travel.

He said fighting a wildfire can be exhausting for firefighters because they have to walk into the woods, fight the fire and then leave again. He added that this is why it is essential to maintain good relations with neighboring departments.

“We all rely on each other and, often, each other's equipment,” Hansen said.

Many people will have campfires this weekend or use a grill for meals, Hansen said. He said people should never leave them unattended and always have a water source nearby to quickly put out a fire if it starts to get out of control. He said people should monitor the DNR's fire danger level and obtain a burning permit if necessary.

“People should make appropriate preparations to put out a fire quickly, but if it gets too large or spreads too quickly, call 911 as soon as possible,” the fire chief said.

Although the Alpena area received some much-needed rain Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service in Gaylord said it was likely not enough to significantly reduce the risk of wildfires.

But the weather service says there's a good chance of rain today and a slight chance of precipitation several days next week.

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