Fast-moving wildfire burns nearly 20,000 acres

A fast-moving wildfire fed by dry conditions in Michigan's Upper Peninsula continued to burn Friday, consuming nearly 20,000 acres and prompting evacuations of homes and sections of a state park, officials said.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said the blaze it's calling the Duck Lake Fire was in an area of Luce County north of Newberry that includes Lake Superior State Forest land. It was detected Wednesday after a lightning strike and intensified Thursday, scorching the tops of jack pine trees as flames hurtled northward.

The fire nearly doubled in size overnight and reached Lake Superior's southern shore Friday, said Ed Golder, DNR spokesman. It was being compared to the Sleeper Lake Fire of 2007, which burned more than 18,000 acres in the same area.

"The whole sky is just smoke," said Beverly Holmes, Newberry village manager, who was driving on a highway east of town. "It's like a heavy fog."

No injuries were reported. Golder said more than 40 structures were threatened and six had been lost. It wasn't immediately clear whether they were homes or outbuildings.

Homes were evacuated in the Pike Lake area, but it wasn't immediately clear how many. Sections of Tahquamenon Falls State Park also were evacuated, including a campground and trail with views of a 50-foot-high waterfall that is one of the Upper Peninsula's most popular tourist attractions. The DNR urged visitors to avoid the area during the Memorial Day weekend.

Authorities warned motorists to use caution as heavy smoke blew across roads.

Crews also have been fighting a second fire at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Schoolcraft County that was started Sunday by a lightning strike. The Seney fire, located west of the Duck Lake Fire, had burned about 3,400 acres, or roughly 5 square miles, as of Friday.

At the Duck Lake Fire, crews used tractor plows, bulldozers, fire engines and other vehicles. In addition to dozens of DNR firefighters, crews from several departments in the area were sent to help. Aircraft were scooping up water from inland lakes to drop on the flames, Holmes said.

"The wind has been the problem," she said. "Every time it picks up and changes direction, it changes where the fire is headed."

People evacuated from the Duck Lake Fire were sent to a shelter at a youth center in Newberry. Nearly 40 had checked in, said Jeff Selesky, emergency services program manager for the U.P. chapter of the American Red Cross, which provided food and other assistance.

"Some of them are a little disoriented and confused," Selesky said. "They have images of possibly losing their property, their homes."

Amy Witherspoon, 41, said firefighters knocked on her door Thursday and ordered her family to leave their Pike Lake cabin. She got out safely with her 71-year-old father and her 19-year-old daughter, grabbing clothing, medicine and a few other belongings.

"There's a lot of sentimental things there," Witherspoon said of the cabin, which has been in her family for about 50 years. "We wish we had grabbed the pictures off the wall."

Witherspoon, who lives in the Lower Peninsula community of Lakeview, about 40 miles northeast of Grand Rapids, didn't know Friday morning whether the cabin had been damaged.

Area motels were full, and Selesky said many of those evacuated were staying with friends and relatives.

At the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, manager Mark Vaniman said the fire was about 70 percent contained. Some of the 95,000-acre refuge's roads and trails were closed, although Vaniman said a couple might reopen Saturday.