Wildfires occur throughout the spring, summer and fall in Michigan, however, most take place in March, April, and May. During this period, much of the existing vegetation has been killed due to winter temperatures and most of the vegetation is dead, brown and combustible. Also, there is little green vegetation to serve as a barrier for a moving wildfire. In the spring, residents are raking yards and collecting yard waste that has accumulated over the winter. Many residents elect to burn their yard waste and this leads to the majority of wildfires. The MDNR estimates that one-third to one-half of Michigan wildfires are due to people burning debris.
Contray to public belief, most wildfires in Michigan are not the large wildland fires that generally occur in California and other western states, often generating daily news coverage for extended periods of time. Most Michigan wildfires are small and never make news headlines. However, Michigan has had its share of large, devastating wildfires, including major fires within the last two decades.
The most devastating wildfire that impacted Michigan occurred on October 8, 1871, near Peshtigo, Wisconsin on the Michigan-Wisconsin state line. Burning over 2400 square miles in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, this wildfire caused 1300 to 1500 fatalities, while consuming the town of Peshtigo and many other communities and homes. Eye-witness accounts reported that in the town of Peshtigo—a town of approximately 1700 residents—only one building was left standing.
Ten years later, in 1881, a large wildfire occurred in the "Thumb" area of Michigan which consumed over 1 million acres and took 282 lives. The Thumb wildfire is said to have been caused by a combination of logging, land-clearing fires, and low humidity.
More recently, on May 5, 1980, the Mack Lake Fire near Mio, Michigan, consumed over 25,000 acres of wildland. The fire destroyed 44 homes and claimed the life of one fire fighter.
In 1990, the Stephan Bridge Road Fire near Grayling consumed 8 miles of vegetation in a 4-hour time period. While no one was killed, the fire destroyed 76 homes and another 125 out-buildings. A smoldering brush fire, wind, and neighboring jack pines led to the cause and extent of this fire.
There have been several major wildfires in Michigan since 2006 as noted below.
The 2006 Hughes Lake Fire near Mio started by a homeowner burning debris, spread 6,000 acres and smoldered for nearly two weeks with twenty three structures lost and costs of fire supression approximately $1 million.
In 2007, the Sleeper Lake Fire in Luce County consumed over 18,000 acres and spread underground through a dried out bog surfacing at many locations over several weeks. Started by lightning in early August, it was virtually impossible to completely extinguish the fire until snow arrived in late autumn. Youth playing with fireworks started a fire in nearby vegetation that destroyed three Lake Michigan shoreline homes in the July 2007 Laketown Fire in Allegan County. Property loss for these homes was close to $4 million. A smaller 2007 fire, the Baraga Bump Fire in Baraga County consumed over 1100 acres, much of it jack pine forest.
Fire specialists determined a train travelling in windy conditions through jackpine and hardwoods started the April 2008 Four Mile Fire near Grayling in Crawford County which spread 1500 acres and destroyed three homes.
Two smaller fires occurred during 2009 in the U.P., the Pinery Fire consuming 685 acres and the Black River Falls Fire destroying 806 acres.
In May 2010, two wildfires occurred days apart. The Meridian Boundary Fire in Crawford County consumed nearly 9,000 acres with twelve homes and thirty nine other structures lost. The Range Nine Fire in nearby Kalkaska County was smaller at 1040 acres and less homes were lost.
Fortunately, 2011 saw fewer and smaller Michigan wildfires with the 817 acre Howes Lake Fire near Grayling in Crawford County being the largest.
Wildfire activity in 2012 has already surpassed 2011 totals with the most significant fire being the Duck Lake Fire in Luce County. Started by lightning on May 24th, the fire consumed 21,069 acres and destroyed 136 of the 141 structures in the fire perimeter before being contained three weeks later.
The largest wildfire in Michigan history is the 1976 Seney National Wildlife Refuge Fire at 78,000 acres followed by the 1980 Mack Lake Fire consuming 25,000 acres and the 2012 Duck Lake Fire destroying 21,069 acres.