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Column: Upper peninsula fire not as bad as you think
Wednesday, September 12, 2007 12:01 PM EDT
I apologize for missing the last couple of columns. I was happily minding my own business when the DNR called for a spur of the moment deployment to the big fire near Newberry in the Upper Peninsula. Sprawled out over 28 square miles of roadless, boggy marsh, the lightning created Sleeper Lakes Fire became the third largest fire in Michigan history. It was a traumatic event for the local residents. Their world was on fire. In their minds the land they had hunted and fished all their lives was going up in smoke, forever ruined. We firefighters racing into the fire were treated like heroes. I, along with everyone else, was caught up in the frenzy to do whatever it takes to put 'er out.
Then one day I was trudging alone along the bulldozed fire line looking for flare ups. The line was a God-awful mess. Bulldozers had dug up miles of vegetation and trees, piling it all into a head high berm along every inch of the fire line.
The naked, muddy trench was ripped with deep dozer tracks and strewn with five foot deep sink holes where dozers had gotten stuck. I was cursing the miserable footing when an old acquaintance, Jack McGowan-Stinski of The Nature Conservancy, stepped out of the bushes. The Nature Conservancy owns part of the fire area and Jack is a crack wildland firefighter as well as a savvy biologist. "What's up Jack," I asked."Just seeing if it might be possible to rehab this mess," he replied, frowning at the mud wallow dozer line. He reminded me that the fire was the best thing that could have happened to the marsh, giving it a long overdue cleansing as nature intended. It was our mucking around trying to put it out that caused all the damage. Jack's wisdom was like a slap in the face, bringing me back to reality. He was dead right. The fire was only a couple weeks old and already green shoots of new grass were sprouting up everywhere.
The clusters of pitcher plants and other marsh vegetation were seared on top but their roots were fine. It was nothing but a hair cut to them. The woody willows, blueberries and other shrubbery that provide food for moose, deer, bear and birds tends to crowd out other vegetation. Fire sets them back some. Soon they will re-grow, too, only not so thick. Nature worked all this out to perfection eons ago. "We have to rethink how we deal with these kinds of fires," Jack lamented as he slogged down the fire line.
I began paying closer attention. Other than being blackened, the burned area looked perfectly normal. If it weren't for our mess, within a few months you wouldn't even notice a fire had been there. However, in addition to the fire line, sunken ATV and foot paths where fire personnel traveled daily stuck out like sore thumbs. They will remain nearly forever. The beaver ponds that we pumped 1 million gallons of water from were nearly dry. The remnant pools bubbled like carbonated water, indicating we had indeed sucked out all the water the ground had to give. Other pumps around the fire did likewise. The long-term effect on the marsh's hydrology can only be speculated upon.
There are solutions to these problems but they come with a price. Regular controlled burning would reduce fuel loads so fires don't become so house and life threatening intense but that requires a lot of personnel and equipment. Building codes could mandate fire safety zones around structures, allowing less aggressive fire suppression.
Immediate air drops of fire retardant before a wildfire escalates to holocaust status would minimize the need for bulldozed lines. Surely the state could work out financial contracts with the National Guard. Each helicopter drop costs something like four thousand dollars but we've spent over $6 million dollars on this fire in old school fashion and it isn't done yet. That would buy a lot of air drops. Yes, Jack, I whole-heartedly agree, we must find better ways.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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