Living with Fire in Northern Michigan

Living with Fire in Northern Michigan

By Jed Jaworski
Current Contributor

Residents of Northern Michigan, like much of the nation, are reevaluating our long held perceptions on fire in the environment. Fire professionals, ecologists and climate experts are all telling us fire will be in our back yard, but can we actually live “with” fire? The answer is that we may have little choice.

Prior to European settlement in Northern Michigan, fire was a frequent force in nature. Mother Nature would see to it that a low intensity ground fire would sweep the forest floor of flammable debris, cull sick or injured trees, check invasive species and infestations, condition and enrich soils, propagate fire dependant species and most importantly “fire temper” the forest so it would be less likely to be destroyed by fire in the future. How frequently and how intensely fire occurs is called a “fire regime”, and for our area the regime was a low intensity “housekeeping” ground fire about every 25 years and a high intensity crown fire, which consumes nearly everything, about every 400 years. The high intensity fires would happen when large areas of a forest my be sick, infested or dying, so that what may have been an unhealthy aged pine forest, may now become a young healthy prairie; natures force for creating biodiversity. An important aspect of fire tempering was the fire pruning of low hanging and dead limbs on living trees. In that manner by the time the tree grew to maturity it had experienced many fire cycles and no limbs existed within 12+ feet of the forest floor, hence it was unlikely a ground fire could climb or “ladder” into the tree and become a large and devastating crown fire.

The Native Americans, seeing how well fire worked in nature, began managing fire for their own interests. This roughly doubled the amount of naturally occurring fires, improving their environment, food harvesting and hunting opportunities. When Europeans settled here that balance was suddenly and drastically altered. Intensive logging with poor land stewardship practices set our area up for disasters which we are still attempting to recover from. The term “slash and burn” was coined in the timber industry. The tops of the trees are left dead on the ground while the prime saw logs are hauled off. Slash blocked the movement of logs and the influx of homesteaders and farmers wanting to clear the land behind the loggers so it was lit afire to facilitate its easy removal. With much of the Great Lakes region a wasteland of logging slash in the 1870’s and 80’s, these slash fires burned for months. Smoke was so thick from smoldering slash fires ships were colliding out on the lakes. Then came the inevitable dry spell with high winds and the Great Lakes states became an inferno. In one year alone, more than 14,000 Michiganders became refugees of devastating wildfire; Holland, Manistee and much of the thumb area were all lost to fire. The 1871 Peshtigo Fire’s toll of nearly 2000 dead to this day remains the worst casualty fire in U.S. history… wildfire became public enemy number one.

Fires burned so intensely they killed nearly everything in their path and literally sterilized the ground. Unlike natural fires where the landscape quickly recovers healthier than it was before, these fires devastated the land. Ash and fragile topsoil’s were eroded down slope chocking streams with silt and Ph shocking aquatic systems. Fore decades the Civilian Conservation Corps and others attempted to control fires, stabilize erosion and replant the forests. Today we see the successes of that monumental effort, but its shortfalls now leave us more vulnerable to fire than ever, why?

Our fear of wildfire and resulting willingness to spend a lot of money on the issue along with technological advancements over the century have enabled us to become very effective at detecting and extinguishing most fires that occur, only the ones that get away make the news. Our National Fire Plan, insensitive to nature’s desires, has historically been one of nearly complete fire exclusion from the environment; however without natural fires occurring, our forests are no longer “fire tempered” and as a result are primed to increasingly burn out of control. Globally 70% of forests are now degraded or declining do to a lack of natural fire. Add to that poorly conceived development patterns that place homes and communities in fire prone areas as well as climate change and the recipe for disaster is coming together again.

The problem affects everyone from private landowners, local, state and federal governments, fire departments, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, State and National Forests and land conservancies. Local Fire Chiefs lament “A few decades ago we would respond to a fire in a farmers field with our two engines, one would protect the farmhouse the other fight the fire. Today we still have two engines, but now there are a dozen homes built around that field; there is simply no way to effectively get enough people and equipment to protect every home and still be able to fight a wildfire, something has to change”.

What those changes ought to be is being debated. Should we allow or re-introduce more fire into the environment as Mother Nature desires by letting some fires burn or setting prescription fires? In April of 2013, 170 acres of the Arcadia Marsh and some grassland holdings were intentionally burned in a prescription fire by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, much like many state and federal entities are conducting prescription fire to restore natural systems, improve habitat and reduce our threat from uncontrolled wildfire in other local areas.

Another consideration is altering and improving our development patterns through zoning, building codes and “safer from the start” development practices and attempt to avoid fire prone areas. Michigan now has its first “Firewise” USA Program Community, with more communities considering opting in.

We can also take personal responsibility for making our homes fire resistant and no longer ask our towns fire fighters to put their lives on the line to save our houses in dangerous wildfire events. A quarter of all fire fighter deaths are now occurring in the wildland/urban interface. Many communities across the nation have illustrated we can very easily and cost effectively modify our yard and home to resist fire just as well as the home resists wind, rain and snow by utilizing “Firewise” landscape design, maintenance and building construction principals.

Consideration is also given to increasing education, planning and preparedness by developing “Community Wildfire Protection Plans” (CWPP’s), adopting programs like “Ready, Set, Go”, “Firewise”, and improve training and equipment for ourfirst responders. Locally Manistee and Wexford Counties are presently preparing countywide CWPP’s.

Fire is a force of creation, and as we now understand it has an important role to play in nature and balancing the planets ecosystems. It seems likely the long term solution will come from “Fire adapting” our communities by embracing all the previous considerations and learning to live compatibly with nature, rather than erroneously believing we can continue to control or dominate it.

The Betsie Current will publish a series of articles further explaining and exemplifying how our local communities are “learning to live with fire”. Learn more by visiting Contributing writer Jed Jaworski resides on a turn of the century farmstead in Benzie County and has lived in the region for over 30 years working as a leader with many collaborative community based programs and projects. Jaworski has worked extensively in the emergency services field during that time, principally with federal, state and local firefighting entities as both a wildland and structural firefighter, and State of Michigan Forest Fire Officer. His multi agency training and experience with wildland/urban interface fire in Michigan and across the country is availed to the Michigan State University Extension’s “Firewise” program as well as independent consulting to landowners, organizations and area governments.

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Jacob Wheeler

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