MARQUETTE - More than 150 personnel in the eastern Upper Peninsula are continuing work to contain the state's largest fire in more than three decades.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Information Officer Ada Takacs said the recent rains and calmer winds were more than welcome and helped to slow the spread of The Duck Lake Fire. But this week's drier and warmer weather has actually helped the crews on the ground.
"We're seeing a little bit more smoke, and we're seeing flames once in a while," she said. "The heat is allowing them to see where the hot spots are."
Much of the affected area is boggy and vehicles are often unable to reach hot spots; Takacs said 20-person crews are scouring the fire area and removing fuel by hand.
The fire, she said, often hides underground. Firefighters have told her that occasionally the ground will collapse in a small area and that they can see tree roots burning beneath the soil.
"They are going in and grubbing everything by hand. To stop fire you have to take oxygen away or take fuel away," Takacs said. "When you have boggy areas you can't really doze through that, so they need to go out through the swamps and move it away - move the brush and everything - by hand."
The Duck Lake Fire, first spotted during the afternoon of May 23 and fanned by heat and high winds in the following days, quickly crowned and began rampaging through the jack pine forests about 14 miles north of Newberry.
The blaze stretched north to the Lake Superior shoreline, where it burned out a six-mile wide stretch of land.
At latest count, the fire was 76 percent contained and had consumed 21,094 acres and 136 structures - that total includes 23 garages, 26 campers, 38 sheds and outbuildings, 47 homes and cabins, one motel and one store.
Though not contiguous, miles of uncontained fire line remain, including numerous one- to three-mile long stretches. On Monday, officials estimated 15 miles of uncontained fire line.
On Saturday, the DNR began allowing landowners to return to properties near Pike Lake, Bodi Lake, Culhane Lake and Little Lake Harbor. Sections of Luce County roads 414 and 500 remain closed, as does a section of the Two Hearted ORV trail.
The portions of Tahquamenon Falls State Park that closed, due to possible danger from the Duck Lake Fire, reopened Tuesday.
To the west of the Duck Lake Fire, cleanup is also continuing at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge.
The Pine Creek North Wildfire, which was started by lightning on May 20 and burned through 3,400 acres at Seney, has been considered 100 percent contained since Friday.
Incident Commander Gary Lindsay said the fire was the second largest the reserve had seen in 65 years. It was expensive, he said, but not detrimental.
"It falls into the realm of a natural occurrence - to the refuge, to the wildlife, it wasn't detrimental," he said. "But it wasn't a planned event and it was trying to do things we didn't want it to do. It wasn't going to happily stay on the refuge."
Lindsay said the total cost of the firefighting efforts - as Seney is a national refuge, the bill goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - was estimated at more than $620,000. Aviation is the most costly aspect of the firefighting operation, but Lindsay said the air support was crucial.
"On the second day, we realized the fire was going to push our containment area and we called in the CL-215s, the big scoop ships, to try to calm the fire down so we could get a handle on it," he said. "About 45 minutes after they got there, the fire spotted about an eighth of a mile out of the containment area and we were off to the races then.
"If the planes weren't there, we may still be chasing it."
Seney has seen nearly two inches of rain in the past few days and that has helped to control the fire, but Lindsay said he has worked at the refuge long enough to know he must remain vigilant. He said the refuge staff will continue monitoring the area "until the snow flies."
"It may be out, but we don't trust it to be out," he said.