PLEASE NOTE THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN ON SEPTEMBER 4, 2007, WELL BEFORE THE FIRE HAD BEEN CONSIDERED OVER. WE HAVE HAD A GOOD AMOUNT OF RAIN SINCE THIS WAS WRITTEN AND EVERYTHING IS OK!
ON THE FIRELINE OF MICHIGAN’S THIRD LARGEST WILDFIRE
By August 2nd the entire state of Michigan was at near record drought levels. Grasses were parched dirt brown and every leaf and twig in the forests were tinder dry. All the factors were aligned for mega wildfires.
I’m a Michigan Wildland Firefighter and was manning the Allegan DNR Fire Office when I heard a distant radio transmission from the Upper Peninsula reporting a fire. DNR Fire Officers who stare down flames on a near daily basis have ice water in their veins but you could literally feel this guy’s apprehension as he said the fire was ten acres and growing fast.
Twenty minutes later a DNR reconnaissance plane flew over the fire. In just those few minutes the ten acre blaze had exploded to 150 acres. The pilot incredulously reported the inferno doubling, tripling and quadrupling in size over the passing minutes. Thus began the infamous Sleeper Lakes Fire north of Newberry which would become the state’s third largest wildfire on record. It was started by a bolt of lightning.
My tour of duty on the Sleeper Lakes Fire came two weeks later. By then much of the fire had been tenuously corralled. Like everyone, I’d heard the basic news reports but I really had no idea what to expect. As our twelve man crew walked toward the fire apprehension hung as thick as the smoke that stung our eyes. Reaching our staging point, we stared awestruck out over a flat, barren expanse of scorched earth extending all the way to the horizon.
Twenty-eight square miles of it. In a blackened, twisted way it was actually beautiful. Marching out into the ashes we realized this was not the typical pine forest fire, but an immense bog marsh, the surface dried by drought and flames but the mattress-like moss spongy underfoot. Those of us that had fought muck fires before knew the acrid smoke billowing up all around was peat soil burning invisibly underneath a few inches of charred surface duff. Tread cautiously for every step carried the possibility of breaking through into a bed of superheated coals. We trudged a half mile out into the smoky haze to survey the situation.
Our immediate mission was to lay over a mile of 4” aluminum irrigation pipe down the west side of the fire to provide water to that active part of the line. Before we could even contemplate the task of hand carrying countless twenty foot sections of pipe the smoke was deemed too intense for lungs and we were ordered to retreat from the fire. Held at bay the ensuing eight hours until dusk by smoke that refused to budge tested our grip on sanity. Such was our first day on the fire.
Over the next week and a half we did lay pipe. Lots of pipe. Six thousand, two hundred feet of it in all. At the north end was a big pump stealing water from a watery pocket of the marsh. We were assembling the pipe along the bulldozer line that contained the west side of the fire. This was not the nice, open, boggy marsh at the middle of the fire. It was cursed cedar swamp. Scorched brush and downed trees ensnarled in a vast, impenetrable mass.
Impenetrable, that is, if you don’t have the threat of flames nipping at your heels. Then it is not so impenetrable. The line itself was churned up, boot sticking mud interspersed with deep, water filled sink holes where bulldozers had sunk to their cabs. The dozers had spent as much time digging each other out as constructing line. Now it was impassable even to them. It was a most bizarre mixture of water, mud, smoke and fire.
Each day started the same. 6:00 a.m. buffet breakfast at Zeller’s restaurant. As a squad leader I attended the daily 7:00 a.m. supervisor briefing on weather, fire behavior and so on while the crew impatiently waited. Then reiterate the important stuff to the crew and head to the fire. On the way out cheery Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers met us with lunch sacks loaded with sandwiches, chips, sweet rolls, fruit, juice, power bars and the all-important hard candy to keep your salivary glands from clogging up with soot. The lunches were assembled by inmates at the Newberry prison which brought thoughts about what condiments might really be on the sandwiches but most of us chose to not dwell on that.
A convenience store at the south edge of the fire had been commandeered for the Incident Command Post. Stop there to pick up last minute supplies. Sort through the lunch bag and throw out all the bulky, heavy stuff like apples, sweet rolls and cans of juice, wad the remainder up into your backpack along with as much water and Gatorade that you hope you can carry all day. We wouldn’t be back until sundown.
Day’s end was also a routine. The Road Show we called it. Around dusk the platoon of nearly three hundred firefighters, bulldozer laden trucks and various fire vehicles chugged down the main drag of Newberry. People lined the sidewalks cheering, applauding and waving banners which did wonders to uplift unimaginably weary bodies and spirits. Dinner was prepared and catered in to the Fire Office by various restaurants and even the Mennonite community. The residents of Newberry did our laundry in their own homes, including thank you notes, candy and homemade jerky in the neatly folded clean clothes. They kept the fire office awash in homemade cookies and cakes. Those are some kind of folks up there.
Over the days our pipeline grew like a snake on steroids, winding through the goo and entangled cedar. At regular intervals fittings were added to attach fire hose. Part of the crew worked at extinguishing the fires while the rest hauled the never ending sections of pipe. We were constantly interrupted by air tanker and helicopter water drops, where we had to retreat several hundred yards to keep from being dowsed with foam laden water. The big air tankers out of Minnesota and Canada scooped water from Lake Superior. The National Guard Blackhawk helicopters dipped their water bags into nearby ponds. The drops were annoying but necessary. They weren’t intended to put out the fires, just keep them from flaring up so we could work at extinguishing them. The monstrous tankers skimming the treetops as they thundered overhead made you instinctively duck.
Fighting the fire itself was mostly hosing water into the burning pockets of underground fire but it wasn’t without some adrenalin pumping moments. One day the humidity was down and winds were gusting to thirty miles per hour. I was patrolling the fire line on the lookout for evil happenings. As I approached a bend I could hear the crackling of fire beyond before I could see it. Flames were consuming trees inside the fire line and throwing burning embers into the dry moss outside the line. I had no tools so radioed for help then dashed about picking up the burning embers in my hands and carrying each out to the muddy fire line. The crew boss arrived and we passed the embers between us, gently cradled in our hands like fragile baby birds. We held our own for maybe fifteen minutes but eventually the embers came too many too fast and the area burst into flames. Our efforts did buy precious time, though, which allowed our crew to start laying hose and a bulldozer to head our way.
Shortly thereafter I found another flare up that had already crossed the line. Flames were torching into the treetops and heading off fast. All I could do was radio it in and wave goodbye as the fire roared off through the cedars. At the same time the part of our crew working further south had a wall of fire race at them, jumping the line without even slowing down. Then an ominous, immense smoke column billowed up out in the marsh extending nearly a mile into the blue sky. It was drawing nearer by the minute and we were ordered to leave our equipment and evacuate with haste. The next morning we found hundreds of feet of our abandoned hose burned into little pieces.
After my twelfth day on the fire and a little help from the Rain Gods the Sleeper Lakes Fire was pretty much done for. To date, and it’s not completely over, six million dollars have been spent on the fire. Our crew alone pumped 1.4 million gallons of water on the fire. We worked over fourteen hours a day and felt lucky to get five hours sleep at night but rest was not in the cards. The next morning we were enroute to a different fire but that’s another story.
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