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Grayling wildfire could just be the start. Whitmer discourages campfires

smoke around of fire
Over 2,400 acres of land destroyed as a result of a fire in Grayling. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
  • A campfire over the weekend resulted in 2,400 acres of burned forest land 
  • The governor has discouraged recreational campfires but has not issued an official burn ban

A wildfire that scorched at least 2,400 acres and temporarily closed I-75 near Grayling over the weekend could be a harbinger of a frightening fire season, with an abnormally dry spring that has turned much of the state into a tinderbox expected to continue for weeks.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday cautioned against outside fires, but so far has stopped short of banning campfires on state land. Fire crews are on standby in high-risk areas of the state.


With precipitation projected to continue to be below normal for weeks, and with campgrounds full and fireworks season fast approaching, officials are pleading with the public to be cautious.


“When fire risk is as extreme as it is now we strategically place fire crews on standby out in the landscape we think that the fire has the highest risk to ignite as well as the greatest amount of spread,” said Patrick Ertel public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources' incident management team. 

Ertel said if conditions don't change before the Fourth of July, officials would be really concerned. "We desperately need a really good soaking rain and that could really reset ... some of the fire risk." 

“One of the most critical aspects to being vigilant is to be aware of the fire risk,” he said. “People that may be traveling, visiting a state park or …  camping may not be aware of how much rain their destination has received versus where they live at home.”

Saturday served as an unfortunate example, as a small campfire on private property near Grayling exploded into a massive forest fire causing extensive damage in Crawford County. 

Luckily, wind carried the fire away from populated areas and the pristine Au Sable River.

More than 90 percent of the Grayling fire, which caused a closure in both directions on Interstate 75 Saturday, had been contained as of Monday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed. 

fire truck
As of Monday afternoon, 90 percent of the fire has been contained. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

"It has been a very dry spring, and we want people to know, you know: do not have fires outside right now,” Whitmer said Monday during an event in Flint.

“Things are too dry and it could be a very dangerous situation,” Whitmer said. “We're fortunate that we don't deal with this all the time but … we want to elevate everyone's sensitivity.” 

It has been nearly a month since the last rainfall in Grayling. Jeff Zoltowski, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord, said the average rainfall in a 30-day period in that area is about 3 inches. Grayling and surrounding areas have only received a quarter of an inch of rain in that time.

There’s little chance of rain in the Grayling area until at least Friday night or Saturday morning, and even that precipitation is iffy, Zoltowski said.

The same is true across much of parched Michigan. Most of the state remains at “very high” or “extreme” fire danger as dry, hot conditions have persisted for weeks. The levels of dryness are more characteristic of late summer months, according to Beth Fults, a DNR fire safety spokesperson.

“What we're seeing is things that we haven't seen or observed in more than about 20 years,” Fults said. “[Now] we should see green in our forests, we should see green on the ground. And we're not seeing that.”

According to a DNR press release, 10 Wisconsin firefighters arrived Sunday and assisted in containing the fire. Kathleen Lavey, a communications specialist for the DNR’s forest resources division, said the state’s incident management team, which is mobilized to respond to fires and other hazards, received support from federal, state and local fire departments.


The DNR reported that nine of ten forest fires across the state and country are started by humans, including the one in Grayling. The department is not currently issuing burn permits in northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. 

While the governor has discouraged people from lighting campfires, cooking and recreational fires are still allowed as a burn permit is not required for those. But a permit is required to burn leaves, grass, limbs, brush, stumps and evergreen needles. 

Though municipal fire departments can issue local burn restrictions, only the governor has the authority to issue a statewide ban on recreational fire. 

Julie Rubsam, executive director of HeadWaters Land Conservancy in Gaylord, said “people just don’t realize what kind of impact their personal activities can have. 

“I don’t think it’s ever anybody’s intention to do something to start a wildfire, but there needs to be more education about the transition of the climate and that things will more likely be drier,” she said.

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