A rapidly spreading wildfire swept across 5,916 acres of a wildland/urban interface area near Grayling, Michigan beginning around 3:50 PM on May 8, 1990. More than 76 homes and 125 other structures, plus 37 vehicles and boats, were destroyed or heavily damaged during the approximately five hours in which the wind pushed the Stephan Bridge Road fire for a distance of more than eight miles. Losses from the fire have been estimated at $5.5 million, plus another $700,000 in destroyed timber. Extinguishment costs were more than $56,000. Due to a number of circumstances, 131 structures within the fire perimeter or immediately adjacent to it survived the fire.
The fire originated from the controlled burning of a large pile of brush and timber accumulated from recently cleared land. A burning permit was issued for the controlled burn and the burning was begun while snow covered the ground. It was later assumed that the pile was completely extinguished. However, investigators determined that the remaining fuel in the pile rekindled seven weeks after that initial ignition and escaped undetected from the cleared area. The resulting fire spread to other nearby ground fuels and extended into the adjacent forest before being detected by a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) aircraft pilot and observer.
Based on NFPA’s analysis of this incident, the following are significant factors affecting the outcome of this fire, each is followed by specific recommendation(s) on how they might be mitigated.
- the nature of the fire ignition
- the windy and drying weather conditions
- the type and arrangement of the fuels on flat terrain
- the type and arrangement of structures in the forested setting
- failure to clear combustible vegetation from homesites
- public apathy to fire prevention and fire protection messages
- interagency cooperation