Friday, April 2, 2010

Its Forest Fire Season

For the upper Midwest, spring is forest fire season. This year it has come early and fast. Normally around the Roscommon area you would expect very high and extreme fire weather to arrive in the first few weeks of May. Today the forecast calls for temps in the 80's, no rain and high winds ... and this follows days of dry, sunny warm weather. The woods are ripe for a large, devastating fire - a month ahead of time. This is peculiar, although not unprecedented. It might be a foreshadowing of what is to come as the earth continues to follow a warming trend that is changing our weather patterns and melting our glaciers and ice packs.
Why does the spring bring this concern in Michigan? Unlike arid areas, we usually have adequate moisture during a year's period in this State. In the spring, the vegetation hasn't greened, making it dry. When there has been enough warmth for the trees and plants to leaf out - usually late May - the fire danger generally passes for a while. Plants "pump" water from the ground when this green-up occurs and that not only makes them harder to burn but if they do burn, it is less intense. Of course, that is why you want to use dry wood in the fireplace. Green-up also increases the relative humidity of the air; the more moisture in the air, the less intense a fire.
Weather-wise, the upper Great Lakes usually get some beautiful clear-sky days in spring. We have had quite a few this year. These high pressure systems have little humidity, often have high winds and can sit over us for several days. They dry out the vegetation even more. This is what we have been experiencing the last few weeks. We have experienced it earlier than normal.
The most unusual aspect of this spring has been that whole state lost its snow and dried out at the same time. Usually spring weather begins in the lower portion of the State and creeps northward over a several week period. How does that affect the fire danger? The Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which is responsible for forest fire control, has only so much staff and equipment. They shift these resources with the fire season. Normally, only one or two parts of the State are a trouble spot at a time. Not this year! We could have major fires start in the south of Michigan or the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula today. The fire fighters are stretched and cannot be pre-placed at the most likely region for a fire start – everywhere it might be likely. Also, there are not enough of them to be at several major events at the same time.
In Michigan, almost every forest fire is started by man. Mostly it is from burning leaves or debris. Sometimes it is sparks from equipment such as chain saws or ORV's. Be careful today. It takes little time for a fire in today's weather to consume your house, reach your neighbors or burn thousands of acres of forest land.

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