Staff Ride to the Mack Lake Fire

 

The Mack Lake Staff ride was originally developed in 2009 by a Team of USFS, DNR, and BLM employees. The Staff Ride recounts tragic events of the May 5, 1980 Crane Lake prescribed fire which escaped and became the Mack Lake Fire. The fire entrapped and killed USFS dozer operator James Swiderski, consumed 23,834 acres, and 44 structures were lost in the Mack Lake subdivision. The intent of the Staff Ride is to build fireline and agency employee leadership skills, focusing on how to develop High Reliability Organizations (HRO) and using the Swiss Cheese Model to analyze situations to prevent failures or unintended outcomes. Human Factors in leadership decisions is the focus of the staff ride.

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

  • Steven Goldman
    Deputy Director, Fire and Aviation Management
    Northeastern Are – FS-R9-RO-Fire & Aviation Management
  • Jecobie Waters
    District Fuels Officer
    FS-R5-Eldorado NF-Georgetown RD
  • Russell Harris
    Forest Assistant Fire Management Officer/Mingo JCC
    FS-R9-Mark Twain NF-Poplar Bluff RD
  • Brian A Hicks
    Regional Workforce Development and Training Specialist
    FS-R9 Eastern Region
  • James McGury
    Visual Information Specialist
    FS-S&P-WO- Fire & Aviation Management
    National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute
  • 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
  • John Grosman
    U.S. Forest Service – Northeastern Area
  • Nina Walker
    Bureau of Land Management – National Wildfire Coordinating Group
Travel Map

Travel Map
(click image to open a larger image)

GoogleEarth map with stand locations and fire progression

GoogleEarth map with stand locations and fire progression
(click image to open a larger image)

 

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

Audio/Visual references:

Fatality Fire Case Study video NFES 2566

Time: 9:50

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Remembering James Lee Swiderski – Part 1

Time: 22:39

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Remembering James Lee Swiderski – Part 2

Time: 18:09

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Mack Lake Fire Progression Map

Time: 0:15

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Maple Ridge Rx Fire

Time: 1:42

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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

Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forests
107 Mckinley Road
Mio, MI 48647
Phone (989) 826-3252

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.

Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 1

Time: 9:11

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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.

Located just south of Stand 1, the best parking option for Stands 1 through 4 is this opening along State Highway M-33.

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.

Fire behavior in fine grass fuels with pockets of light logging slash.

Fire behavior in fine grass fuels with pockets of light logging slash.

Initial ignition operations along east fireline in grass and light slash fuels.

Initial ignition operations along east fireline in grass and light slash fuels.

A kirtlands warbler with a grey and black face and yellow belly perched on a tree branch.

Kirtlands Warbler.

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride.

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride.

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.

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

 

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.

Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 2

Time: 2:55

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Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride.

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake Staff Ride

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.

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.

Tractor with plowline.

Mack Lake Stand 2 with plaque.

Mack Lake Stand 2 with plaque.

 

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.

Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 3

Time: 5:17

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Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride

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.

Mack Lake Stand 3 with plaque.

Mack Lake Stand 3 with plaque.

Mack Lake Stand 3 with sign and engine.

Mack Lake Stand 3 with sign and engine.

 

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.

Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 4

Time: 5:56

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Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride

Looking north along the southwest flank during the Mack Lake Fire.

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.

Mack Lake Stand 4 with north symbol and plaque.

Mack Lake Stand 4 with north symbol and plaque.

A man in the forest standing in front of a burnt over tractor

Photo of burnt over tractor taken during fire investigation in 1980.

A man riding a canoe on a lake along a dense forest.

James Lee Swiderski fishing.

James Lee Swiderski's memorial stone.

James Lee Swiderski’s memorial stone at the NIFC Wildland Firefighters Monument.

 

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.

The Fire continued to advance to the south and east, consuming a total of almost 24,000 acres.  By 1830, two factors changed: vegetation and weather.  The fire reached a hardwood forest type and relative humidity increased significantly reducing fire intensity.  Crews were able to create control lines and engage in mop-up activities.  By 1800 on May 6, 35 miles of control line contained the fire, there were no further significant runs.

History attempted to repeat itself on April 25, 2012.  Swift action by firefighting resources stopped the 820-acre Little Mack Lake fire from taking any lives or homes.  Firefighters were aided by the extensive fuel breaks around the subdivision.  These fuel breaks did not exist in 1980.

In 2014, The Maple Ridge prescribed burn was ignited adjacent to the subdivision to remove hazardous fuel.  This 50-acre fire burned with similar intensity and rate of spread as previous wildfires.  The prescribed burn was designed with emphasis on using the lessons learned from the 1980 Mack Lake Tragedy.

Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 5

Time: 2:55

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Mack Lake Staff Ride Stand 5 - Supplemental Video

Time: 2:55

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Maple Ridge Rx Fire

Time: 1:42

Watch in full screen: Click Play. At the bottom-right of the video player, click full screen .

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Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake staff Ride.

Interpretive Tile: Mack Lake Staff Ride

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.

Crown fire advancing north towards the Mack Lake Subdivision.

Crown fire advancing north towards the Mack Lake Subdivision.

Maple Ridge RX “Crown fire consumes the 50-acre unit. 300’ Fuelbreak in foreground was burned in September of 2013.

Maple Ridge RX “Crown fire consumes the 50-acre unit. 300’ Fuelbreak in foreground was burned in September of 2013.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2022-09-21