National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2022 Week of Remembrance Day 4

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Mack Lake Fire (Michigan) – May 5, 1980

Today’s topic is dedicated to all fallen firefighters.

Perspective from the USFS Eastern Region


Two wildland firefighters inspect a burned out area of woodland and set markers on the ground

A group of 11 firefighters was tasked with implementing the 28-acre Crane Lake prescribed burn (RX) on May 5, 1980. The burn, in light logging slash and grass fuels, was intended for planting jack pine to create habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. On site was a tractor plow, one Type 7 engine, one 1,000-gallon 6x6 engine, and a deuce-and-a-half engine. A cold front was predicted to pass through the area in the early afternoon. The plan was to ignite the unit by 0900 and complete it by 1200, before conditions were out of prescription.

The crew got a late start and began ignition at 1026. Fire began spotting over the line almost immediately. Spot fires became challenging to contain and efforts were compounded by the Type 7 engine getting stuck, stalling, and running out of water. When a seventh spot fire ignited, the plan was to hold the fire along highway M-33 a few hundred feet away. At 1206 the fire spotted across the highway. Then the predicted cold front arrived, bringing strong winds. The tractor and engine successfully attacked the spot fire and responded to more spots across the highway at 1215. Their attack efforts were not enough to catch them all. Pushed by strong winds, the fire ran through grass and jack pine, transitioning to a crown fire within minutes.

The fire became intense and made a push, jeopardizing equipment. At approximately 1245, the engine radioed that they were retreating to the north away from the fire. James Swiderski, who was operating the tractor plow, did not respond to the radio call or any other attempt to reach him. A search was initiated for James, but he was found deceased at 1500, several hundred feet from his burned over tractor plow. The fire emitted the energy of approximately nine Hiroshima atomic bombs that afternoon. The fire had blown up. and 44 structures were lost, 24,000 acres were consumed, and James Swiderski lost his life.

In 2009, The Mio Ranger District, along with Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), took the lead working with NWCG and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP) to develop the Mack Lake Staff Ride. To honor James and train future generations of firefighters, the staff ride focuses on human factors, high reliability organizations, and the Swiss cheese model. Intended to identify points of failure and understand the fire behavior of jack pine, staff ride participants hike to five locations along three miles, locating the start of the prescribed fire, the fatality site, and the Mack Lake subdivision.

Additionally, the 820-acre Little Mack Lake Fire in 2012 and the 50-acre Maple Ridge prescribed fire in 2014, both with different conditions and outcomes, occurred along the three-mile route of the staff ride. The team found these fires added greatly to the learning value of the Mack Lake Staff Ride. In 2021 the Mack Lake Staff Ride was revised to a virtual format and included the two new fires. The Mack Lake Staff Ride covers many topics including fuels management, prescribed fire planning and implementation, emerging and complex incident management, and managing incidents within an incident (IWI). To participate in the staff ride, you can either come to Michigan or participate in the virtual format to honor James Swiderski and learn from four fires over 34 years in the Mack Lake basin.

“If you have a burn plan, follow it. … Don’t be afraid to ask for help… time is your most important resource … and make sure you have fuel breaks on the things you want to protect.” – Steve Goldman, Stand 5 virtual video

The revised virtual version of the staff ride was first used in delivery of April 2021 M‑581 class with approximately 100 students and cadre.  The Eastern Region will continue to use the staff ride virtually and on-site to teach entry level firefighters through senior leaders that there are no new accidents, just the same accident happening to a different individual, a different organization, or at a different time.


Never Forgotten

James Lee Swiderski

Purple Ribbon
“I am beginning to think human factors are probably the key to it.
“In the Spring of the year… a fire can go from nothing
to a running fire…. in a matter of minutes.
“You’re not gonna catch that, you’re just not!”
Dick Lord, one of the 11


  • RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR) Module: Mack Lake Fire Case Study
  • Video: Remembering James Lee Swiderski, Part 1
  • Video: Remembering James Lee Swiderski, Part 2
Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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