DNR’s eyes in the sky on lookout for wildfires

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Roscommon — Bill Green banks the Cessna 182 hard to the left, turning tight circles over a column of smoke rising from the jack pine forest 3,000 feet below.

Bill Green, chief pilot for DNR, says his job is to spot fires and identify fuel sources for fires.

“Turn left on the two-track just past the white car you’re passing,” Green radios to a Department of Natural Resources fire truck. “You’ll need to go in to the fire behind the white house on your left after you turn.”

The fire, reported by a nearby homeowner, was caught quickly and burned about three acres.

“We got lucky on this one,” he said. “This had great potential, we caught it before it got into the jack pines further.”

For Green, 64, chief pilot for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Air Operations Forest Resources Division, it’s another day of fire detection in northern Michigan.

The fire season begins when the snows melt, sometimes as early as March and ends when the forests have greened up, with full leaf cover, around early to mid-June. Fires can occur any time, according to Green. “Jack pine is always a fuel source,” he said.

“We have three fuel sources in Michigan — jack pine, hardwoods and grasses. All three have different characteristics for fire,” Green said.

“Our task is to determine what the fuel source is and send crews to the site. We try to spot a fire before it gets going and hold the fire to under 10 acres.”

A combination of low humidity, wind and extreme dry conditions on the forest floor all provide an elevated chance of fire in Michigan’s forests.

“A fire has to have an ignition point,” Green said. “It could be a downed tree on a power line, or an unattended camp fire.”

Human activity accounts for 95 percent of all wildfires in Michigan, according to the Michigan Interagency Wildfire Prevention Group, founded in 1981.

Matt Gillen, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Gaylord, says air temperatures, relative humidity levels and wind are the three main ingredients for fire forecasting.

Fire can occur any time, he said, but it’s been more mild so far this year. He added that the past two years had high numbers of fires.

According to the DNR, there were 277 fires across the state in 2015, and so far in 2016 there have been 148 fires.

DNR aircrafts

A pilot since he was 17, Green is nearing the end of his career of flying for a living. He will retire this summer, after logging over 19,500 hours in the air, and will settle into a life of fishing, hunting and flying his own airplane.

“The guys on the ground have complete faith in us, as we guide them into fires. If we misdirected a loaded truck with a piece of equipment, the crews wouldn’t trust us — they can’t easily back up such huge equipment. The crews depend on us to get them to the scene — and home safely at night.”

Along with hundreds of hours of fire detection each year — there were four DNR aircrafts and two National Forest Service aircrafts flying recently — the air crews also help to find lost hikers, hunters or snowmobilers and poachers or others who might be violating the law. They also have flights for wildlife management, counting elk, moose and bald eagles.

“We protect people, property and the natural resources of Michigan,” Green said.

A hangar at the Roscommon Conservation Field is home for the fleet of five Cessna 182 aircrafts and one Cessna 172.

Kevin Jacobs is one of the five pilots flying for the DNR. He and Green are licensed mechanics and maintain as well as fly the airplanes, which are spotless and ready to fly at any time.

Jacobs has been with the DNR for 17 years, and has over 12,500 flying hours. Checking the engine’s oil level, cleaning the windscreen, topping off the fuel tanks and checking all functions of the aircraft, Jacobs prepares to fly north to cover the area from Gaylord to the Straits of Mackinac. Flight times range from two hours to 11 hours or more, depending on fire activity. If there is an active fire, the aircraft will stay over the site until the fire is doused.

Jacobs is in constant touch with Green, while the two fly their assigned areas. Green’s coverage area is from north of Clare to Gaylord, and east or west as needed. Cruising at 4,500 feet, Green can spot potential smoke from up to 20 miles, sometimes farther if it is clear.

“We sometimes see dust, and it looks like smoke,” Green said. “I have my crews wait one minute to be sure it is smoke before they report anything. We want the ground crews to know we are accurate in our reporting.”

Kevin Jacobs, who is one of five pilots flying for the DNR, checks engine oil in a Cessna 182 at a hangar near Roscommon.

Spotting fires

An average of five to 10 fires might be reported on a busy day, according to Green.

“The most I’ve seen in 30 years of flying was 26 fires,” he said.

When a fire is spotted, the airplane stays high above, directing traffic to the site and reporting on the direction the fire is traveling, any structures nearby and what equipment or staff may be needed. It is exacting work, and Green constantly was on the radio updating the ground crews.

Fire detection used to be done from tall steel towers throughout Michigan’s forests. Staffed during fire season, a spotter would be in contact with other towers in his region, and smoke would be triangulated for a guess as to where the fire was located.

By 1968, fire towers were phased out with the more accurate aerial spotters replacing them. Wildlife agencies in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Florida also use aircraft, along with Michigan.

“Our goal is to get the crews home safe each night, and protect people and property,” Green said. “It works very well.”

John Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.