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Staff Ride to the Mack Lake Fire

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The Mack Lake Fire occurred on May 5th, 1980 on the Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forests, in northern Lower Michigan. The Crane Lake prescribed burn, in jack pine slash, escaped control lines, jumped State Highway M-33 to the east, and became the Mack Lake wildfire. It resulted in one firefighter fatality, one civilian burn injury, and destroyed 44 homes and buildings.

Due to a series of events, ignition of the prescribed burn was started later than planned. This, in combination with a frontal passage and increased winds, led to frequent spot fires. Eventually the fire spotted on the east side of Highway M-33. The first spot was contained, but the second crowned and began moving rapidly to the east towards a subdivision at Mack Lake. A tractor-plow and a 6x6 engine began working in tandem along the north flank of the fire. As fire behavior continued to increase in intensity, the engine pulled ahead of the tractor-plow, which was moving more slowly. The engine radioed to the Fire Boss that it was too hot and they were pulling out. The engine turned north/northwest and made their way out to M-33. The tractor-plow did not escape.

An important outcome of the Mack Lake Fire was the increased emphasis within the Great Lakes research community on fire behavior in Great Lakes forests. Many important research papers were published afterwards that greatly increased our knowledge of fire behavior including horizontal roll vortices and the Haines Index. This incident also generated the first national level review of prescribed fire policy.

The Mack Lake Fire Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Barbara Bonefeld U.S. Forest Service Huron-Manistee National Forest
  • Jim Cook U.S. Forest Service National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd Bureau of Land Management National Interagency Fire Center
  • Jim Fisher Michigan Department of Natural Resources
  • Steve Goldman U.S. Forest Service Huron-Manistee National Forest
  • John Grosman U.S. Forest Service Northeastern Area
  • Nina Walker Bureau of Land Management National Interagency Fire Center

The interview of Mike Harnois was conducted by Dan Daniels, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in May, 2009.
The interviews of Randy Marzolo and Richard Lord were conducted by Ken Arbogast, Huron-Manistee National Forests, in June of 2009.
The edited video of the interviews was produced by Paula Nasiatka and Paul Keller from the Lessons Learned Center.
Special thanks to D.A. Brabazon, Lonnie Forshee, Grant Gifford, and Phil Huber for technical assistance.