Fighting Blue Lakes Fire took coordinated effort

News Photo by Julie Riddle At the Atlanta Michigan Department of Natural Resources field office on Tuesday, a sign urges caution during very high fire risk conditions.

ATLANTA — Since January, wildfires have burned just more than 3,000 acres in Michigan.

The vast majority of that burned land was scorched in the past week in a fire originating in Montmorency County.

By late Tuesday, firefighters had corralled and stamped out virtually all of the 2,516-acre fire, although some hot spots may remain, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Containing the blaze in fire-ripe conditions took the work of a large crew of firefighting professionals, a well-coordinated leadership team, and locals willing to offer their time and support to protect their neighbors.

“It went really well,” said Steven Cameron, incident commander for the DNR. “Everybody pulled together.”

News Photo by Julie Riddle A freshly dug trench, recently bulldozed by firefighters fighting the Blue Lakes Fire in Montmorency County, on Tuesday edges the remains of a fire that burned 2,500 acres along Blue Lakes Club Road and north into Cheboygan County.


A half-hour’s bumpy backroad drive northwest of Atlanta, rich green undergrowth and light green, new-leafed trees change abruptly to black.

After closing several roads to the public as the fire spread north into Cheboygan County, the DNR reopened all roads on Tuesday, cautioning residents that they may still encounter hot spots, trees ready to topple, or firefighters mopping up the remains of the fire.

On Tuesday afternoon, a mile-long stretch of Blue Lakes Club Road lay surrounded by charred trunks poking from a mat of crisped grasses.

Furrows torn into the soil marked where firefighters on forest-ready bulldozers dug boundaries to stop the fire’s spread, the burned blackness stopping neatly on one side of each jagged line of overturned earth and trees.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Blackened trees jut from a floor of burned grass along Blue Lakes Club Road in Montmorency County on Tuesday.

On the other side of each furrow, the evergreens and oaks of the Pigeon River State Forest continued on, oblivious to the vast burn mark in their middle.


Fighting the Blue Lakes Fire – so named because it originated just east of the Blue Lakes, on the far west edge of Montmorency County – took the combined efforts of more than 40 DNR firefighters, six local fire departments, medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and a leadership team to keep everyone working in harmony.

Shortly after a resident called 911 to report the fire early Friday afternoon – about the same time a fire spotter pilot reported smoke over the area – local DNR firefighters and other nearby departments converged nearby, hoping to head it off before it got out of hand.

When initial efforts made clear the fire’s strength, the DNR’s Incident Management Team assembled in Atlanta, setting up a command post at the DNR Atlanta Field Office north of town.

News Photo by Julie Riddle A melted sign hangs on a fence along Blue Lakes Club Road, marking the property of Black River Ranch in Montmorency County on Tuesday.

Sometimes responding to non-fire incidents like the Flint water crisis or a COVID-19 vaccination event, the Incident Management Team focuses primarily on coordinated response to large fires, according to Kerry Heckman, public information officer for the team.

Team members are trained to quickly coordinate aspects of a large-scale crisis and “bring order to chaos,” Heckman said.

Team members in assigned roles decide on each day’s tactics, determine what resources firefighters will need, make sure everyone knows their role, and handle logistics like keeping everyone fed.


On Friday, after the 12:40 p.m. report of the fire, firefighters worked until about 11 p.m., followed by an overnight skeleton crew to keep an eye on the burn while others rested, Heckman said.

At early-morning briefings the following days – held in a garage to accommodate a large crowd – the management team briefed everyone involved with the effort on the day’s plan.

A device that functioned like an oversized hotspot, brought in from a DNR office in Roscommon, provided temporary cell phone coverage in the remote area so firefighters and other workers could communicate from around the fire area.

Unable, for safety reasons, to move ahead of the fire as the wind pushed it north, firefighters worked the fire’s flanks, digging trenches and dousing it with water where road conditions allowed passage for local fire department water trucks.

Four Fire Boss fire service planes and a helicopter dropped water where the fire burned most intensely.

On Monday, drone operators used infrared cameras to detect hot spots as firefighters furthered the perimeter around the fire, which had traveled the banks of the Black River and Stuart Creek.

On Tuesday, a reduced crew of firefighters built the last remaining boundary to the fire, working in a remote, swampy portion of woods on the fire’s north end.

By the close of Tuesday, the Incident Management Team was packing up and heading home, leaving the last of the fire response to local workers.


Throughout the fire response, local businesses and residents showed warmth and support for those fighting the Blue Lakes Fire, Heckman said.

Residents stopped by the incident command post regularly, dropping off snacks or thank-you notes. Restaurants pitched in to make sure firefighters ate three meals a day.

The Montmorency County emergency manager helped the management team connect to local sources, like road commission workers who spread brine on the gravel roads near the fire to reduce dust kicked up by a constant flow of fire vehicles.

While local firefighters fought by the sides of their DNR counterparts, police officers guarded road blockades to keep curious residents safe, and local conservation officers steered kayakers and an angler in the fire area out of harm’s way.


Fire investigators were able to find the tree they said was struck by lightning on Wednesday, igniting the fire, Heckman said.

Fire can smolder inside a tree for days as nearby leaves and grasses dry, until a branch falls to the ground, “and then it just takes off,” she said.

High fire danger conditions continue, and residents should use caution even with recreational campfires, said Incident Commander Steven Cameron.

People who fight fires love what they do, and the Incident Management Team will come back if they have to – but, Cameron said, “We’d rather not.”

So far this year, the DNR has responded to 133 wildfires statewide – including the Blue Lakes Fire – that burned a combined 3,089 acres.

The 162 wildfires handled by the DNR by the same time last year burned half as many acres.

In 1981, the Canada Creek Fire burned 1,458 acres in Montmorency County.

The most recent large Michigan wildfire, the Duck Lake Fire in 2012, burned more than 21,000 acres in Luce County, according to the DNR.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today