Staff Ride to the Mack Lake Fire

 

The Mack Lake Fire occurred on May 5th, 1980 on the Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forests, in northern Lower Michigan. The Crane Lake prescribed burn, in jack pine slash, escaped control lines, jumped State Highway M-33 to the east, and became the Mack Lake wildfire. It resulted in one firefighter fatality, one civilian burn injury, and destroyed 44 homes and buildings.

Due to a series of events, ignition of the prescribed burn was started later than planned. This, in combination with a frontal passage and increased winds, led to frequent spot fires. Eventually the fire spotted on the east side of Highway M-33. The first spot was contained, but the second crowned and began moving rapidly to the east towards a subdivision at Mack Lake. A tractor-plow and a 6x6 engine began working in tandem along the north flank of the fire. As fire behavior continued to increase in intensity, the engine pulled ahead of the tractor-plow, which was moving more slowly. The engine radioed to the Fire Boss that it was too hot and they were pulling out. The engine turned north/northwest and made their way out to M-33. The tractor-plow did not escape.

An important outcome of the Mack Lake Fire was the increased emphasis within the Great Lakes research community on fire behavior in Great Lakes forests. Many important research papers were published afterwards that greatly increased our knowledge of fire behavior including horizontal roll vortices and the Haines Index. This incident also generated the first national level review of prescribed fire policy.

The Mack Lake Fire Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Barbara Bonefeld – U.S. Forest Service – Huron-Manistee National Forest
  • Jim Cook – U.S. Forest Service – National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd – Bureau of Land Management – National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • Jim Fisher – Michigan Department of Natural Resources
  • Steve Goldman – U.S. Forest Service – Huron-Manistee National Forest
  • John Grosman – U.S. Forest Service – Northeastern Area
  • Nina Walker – Bureau of Land Management – National Wildfire Coordinating Group

  • The interview of Mike Harnois was conducted by Dan Daniels, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in May, 2009.
  • The interviews of Randy Marzolo and Richard Lord were conducted by Ken Arbogast, Huron-Manistee National Forests, in June of 2009.
  • The edited video of the interviews was produced by Paula Nasiatka and Paul Keller from the Lessons Learned Center.
  • Special thanks to D.A. Brabazon, Lonnie Forshee, Grant Gifford, and Phil Huber for technical assistance.

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel Map

Travel Map

GoogleEarth map with stand locations and fire progression

GoogleEarth map with stand locations and fire progression

 

*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Audio/Visual references:


Google Earth fly-around animation.


Second Google Earth fly-around animation.


Fatality Fire Case Study video NFES 2566; Time: 9:50.

Human Factors Analysis Classification System powerpoint

Documents and Publications:

*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Local Contact Information

Huron-Manistee National Forests
1755 South Mitchell Street
Cadillac, Michigan 49601
Phone (231) 775-2421 or (800) 821-6263

On May 5, 1980 employees of the Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forests ignited the Crane Lake Prescribed Fire. They intended to burn a 28 acre unit, along side State Highway M-33. The goal was to reduce the slash fuel load to prepare the site for planting jack pine to create habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. Fuels on the site included grass, shrubs and scattered discontinuous logging slash. Resources on hand were 11 personnel, 1 John Deere 450 tractor plow, a 125 gallon engine, and a 6x6 1000 gallon engine. Several of the personnel were inexperienced or were not very familiar with this fuel type. The tractor plow operator was also inexperienced and planned to have his final certification on the plow later in the week. The primary operator of the tractor was not available along with several other firefighters due to a training class being held that day. The burn was surrounded by tractor plow line. The Burn Boss planned to ignite the fire around 0900 and complete the burn before 1200. The afternoon weather conditions were predicted to have temperatures in the 80’s, humidity in the 20’s with gusty southwest winds changing to northwest due to the predicted passage of a cold front during the mid-afternoon.

Due to wildfires the previous day, they were not ready to ignite the burn until 1026. During the initial stages of the fire it spotted 4 times along the east control line. These spots were quickly suppressed. However, the fire continued to cause control problems and the 125 gallon engine became stuck on a stump and then later broke down. These problems complicated the suppression of 3 more spot fires. The seventh spot fire on the north flank escaped containment. The 1000 gallon engine radioed that the seventh spot fire was moving east towards the highway.

The best parking option for Stands 1 through 4 is this opening along State Highway M-33. This is located just south of Stand 1.

The best parking option for Stands 1 through 4 is this opening along State Highway M-33. This is located just south of Stand 1.

Panorama of the Crane Lake Prescribed Fire. The right side of the photo is the area labeled “standing timber” next to the “M-33” shield on the hand drawn map (Appendix B4) from the Investigation Report.

Panorama of the Crane Lake Prescribed Fire. The right side of the photo is the area labeled “standing timber” next to the “M-33” shield on the hand drawn map (Appendix B4) from the Investigation Report.

 
The walk from Stand 1 to Stand 2 passes one of the visual buffer islands of larger trees that are still standing.

The walk from Stand 1 to Stand 2 passes one of the visual buffer islands of larger trees that are still standing.

The 1000 gallon tanker (engine) that was on the Mack Lake Fire in 1980. This was a brand new piece of equipment on the district at that time. This photo was taken in 2009 and the engine was still in service at that time.

The 1000 gallon tanker (engine) that was on the Mack Lake Fire in 1980. This was a brand new piece of equipment on the district at that time. This photo was taken in 2009 and the engine was still in service at that time.

 

At approximately 12:06 the seventh spot escaped initial control efforts and began to move east towards the highway. This forced the personnel on the fire to use M-33 as the next logical control feature. The Burn Boss requested another Sheriff’s patrol at 1208 for M-33 due to continued heavy smoke. At approximately the same time the escaped fire was burning downslope towards M-33 on the west side of the highway. The tractor plow had constructed a line along the north side of the spot fire and connected it to M-33. However, the line did not hold.

The first spot fire was detected on the east side of the highway during this time period. The 1000 gallon engine attacked the spot but was delayed as it tried to climb the cut-slope due to the steepness of the grade. The Burn Boss then directed the tractor plow to contain the spot across the highway. The tractor plow put in two lines around the spot, successfully containing it with crewmembers patrolling the plow lines.

Location of the first spot fire to cross to the east side of Highway M-33. Personnel caught this first spot.

Location of the first spot fire to cross to the east side of Highway M-33. Personnel caught this first spot.

The vegetation in the area now is similar to what existed in 1980.

The vegetation in the area now is similar to what existed in 1980.

 
Example of typical tractor plow set-up.

Example of typical tractor plow set-up.

Tractor plow building indirect fireline.

Tractor plow building indirect fireline.

 

Between 1215 and 1230 a second spot fire was detected on the east side of M-33 just north of the original spot fire which had been contained by the tractor-plow and other personnel. This spot was in grass on the highway shoulder and was pushed by wind. The fire torched and then crowned within 100 feet of the origin in a stand of sapling sized jack pine. Surface fuel was primarily sedge, pine litter and duff at this point.

The tractor plow and 1000 gallon engine quickly attacked this second spot. However, they were not able to contain it as it spotted across their line and continued to move east gaining in intensity. The crews still felt they could catch the fire with the tractor and 1000 gallon engine. However, the District Ranger who also was serving as the tractor’s spotter conferred with the Burn Boss and decided to leave the scene and serve as an aerial spotter as they felt the fire had escaped. During this time a reporter briefly talked with the District Ranger along the powerline in regards to the fire’s status. The tractor plow operator was now without a spotter. The District Ranger stopped a passing motorist to get back to the nearby airport as a truck was not available. The 1000 gallon engine and the tractor continued flanking the fire to the east after failing to contain the spot fire. There was no radio communication between the two pieces of equipment after they left the powerline.

Looking west towards Highway M-33 at the point where the tractor-plow operator left the powerline and starting heading northeast.

Looking west towards Highway M-33 at the point where the tractor-plow operator left the powerline and starting heading northeast.

Old plow lines can be identified by the rows of jack pine growing in them. Plow lines make a perfect seed bed after a crown fire in jack pine.

Old plow lines can be identified by the rows of jack pine growing in them. Plow lines make a perfect seed bed after a crown fire in jack pine.

 

The tractor plow operator continued to plow fireline to the east, creating a slightly indirect line on the north flank of the fire. It was approximately 1230 and he was working alone initially. The fuel type was dense sapling and pole size jack pine. The 6x6 followed behind the plow using a wetline sprayed at the base of the fire which was about 30 feet away from the engine as they progressed.

Both the 1000 gallon 6x6 engine and tractor plow were forced to stay away from the flamefront and not use direct suppression tactics. The tractor plow was slower than the 6x6 engine and was passed by the engine. The tractor plow operator and engine operator did not speak face to face or use the radio when this pass was made. They did make eye contact. From that point on the engine remained in front of the tractor plow with no communication between them. The fire then began to make a push to the north. The 6x6 engine radioed that they were being forced to disengage the fire and retreated to the north and to safety. No communication was heard from the tractor. The tractor plow operator realized at approximately the same time he was in trouble. He raised his plow and began to move north away from the fire. After only 110 feet he abandoned the tractor and ran to the northeast. The fire burned over him 276 feet from his tractor.

This is the area in which the tractor-plow operator picked up his plow line for the last time.

This is the area in which the tractor-plow operator picked up his plow line for the last time.

Approximate site where the burned-over tractor-plow was discovered after the fire had passed through.

Approximate site where the burned-over tractor-plow was discovered after the fire had passed through.

 
The vegetation at the burnover site looks much today as it did in 1980, doghair thickets of 30-year-old jack pine that are very explosive and difficult to see through or maneuver through.

The vegetation at the burnover site looks much today as it did in 1980, doghair thickets of 30-year-old jack pine that are very explosive and difficult to see through or maneuver through.

Looking north along the southwest flank during the Mack Lake Fire. Although the main fire spread was to the southeast when this photo was taken (left to right), the flames at this location are being driven to the southwest (right to left in the photo). The action of a horizontal roll vortex could account for this apparent anomaly.

Looking north along the southwest flank during the Mack Lake Fire. Although the main fire spread was to the southeast when this photo was taken (left to right), the flames at this location are being driven to the southwest (right to left in the photo). The action of a horizontal roll vortex could account for this apparent anomaly.

 

The fire continued to advance on the Mack Lake Subdivision at a spread rate of almost 3 miles per hour with spotting ¼ of a mile in advance of the head. The fire hit the edge of the subdivision at approximately 1310 and had burned through the whole subdivision by approximately 1325. Forty-four structures where lost, many more survived the fire and were saved or spared for one reason or another.

The rapid spread of the fire and high intensity did not allow for effective structure protection. However, evacuations were effective and no civilian lives were lost. One civilian was injured trying to get a closer look at the fire. After the fire passed, firefighters were able to quickly return to the subdivision and prevent further structure loss from residual burning and smoldering.

This is the Perma-Log house that survived the Mack Lake Fire and is pictured on the cover of the General Technical Report NC-83. The house next to it did not survive. The siding of this house is a concrete mixture making it very fire resistant.

This is the Perma-Log house that survived the Mack Lake Fire and is pictured on the cover of the General Technical Report NC-83. The house next to it did not survive. The siding of this house is a concrete mixture making it very fire resistant.

This property was private in 1980. It has since been acquired by the Forest Service and this fuelbreak constructed. The fuelbreak is approximately 200 feet wide with all jack pine removed.

This property was private in 1980. It has since been acquired by the Forest Service and this fuelbreak constructed. The fuelbreak is approximately 200 feet wide with all jack pine removed.

 
Male Kirtland’s Warbler singing. The bird winters in the Bahamas and summers in Northern Michigan.

Male Kirtland’s Warbler singing. The bird winters in the Bahamas and summers in Northern Michigan.

This 311 acre area was clearcut in 2005 and planted with jack pine in 2007 in order to provide breeding habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. The Kirtland’s Warbler is a habitat specialist, preferring to nest in large areas of dense young jack pine approximately 5-15 years old, or between 5-15 feet tall. Once these areas have grown too old, the species abandons the habitat and moves to another suitable area of young jack pine. Fire suppression over many decades significantly reduced the amount of habitat available to the bird. Management actions such as clearcutting and prescribed burning have been used to mimic natural wildfire and create habitat. This management program has dramatically increased the number of birds over the last 30 years.

 
This Kirtland’s Warbler unit was created mechanically rather than with fire. Clearcuts may be up to 550 acres in size.

This Kirtland’s Warbler unit was created mechanically rather than with fire. Clearcuts may be up to 550 acres in size.

Because of the urban/interface and urban intermix nature of the Forest, both mechanical and prescribed fire treatments are often done next to subdivisions and residences.

Because of the urban/interface and urban intermix nature of the Forest, both mechanical and prescribed fire treatments are often done next to subdivisions and residences.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2019-11-27