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Article #23, May 1999
By Bill Cook

The recent large fire in Marquette County undoubtedly had some folks seriously thinking about ways to protect their homes.  That interest, I think, fades with the distance from the fire and over time.  However, the event can be an opportunity for those of us with homes “in the north woods” to consider our vulnerability to wildfire.

            Unusually dry springs, like this one, make foresters and fire suppression folks particularly nervous.  History and science remind us of the huge conflagrations that have swept through the Lake States and the Upper Peninsula.  Large fires strain the resources of those charged with fire control.  Multiple large fires would overwhelm our defenses.  Just imagine our plight if a second large fire had spread in the Raco Plains area of the eastern U.P.! 

Wildfire can be a significant threat in any forest type.  Forest types ecologically adapted to fire are the most vulnerable.  Expanses of jack pine are the textbook forest types where fire poses the greatest threat to humans.  Jack pine were born to burn.  If you have a home or structure in a jack pine area, you’re a gambler!  However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the threat of damage during a wildfire. 

Create a minimum 30 foot open buffer between your buildings and the woods.  Make that wider if you live in pine country.  Be certain there is enough room to negotiate a fire truck.  Eliminate brush, leaf, and debris buildup in the buffer area.  In the surrounding woods, thin out conifer crowns so they are not touching each other.  Remove understory vegetation that might allow fire to “crawl” up into the tree tops.  

Make your structure more fire resistant.  Close open eaves and put screens in vents.  Clear porches and roofs of leaf litter.  Wood siding or roofing is attractive, but in high fire risk areas it’s just that . . . high risk.  Keep those wood piles at least 25 feet away from walls and LP tanks. 

Consider the access needed for fire-fighting trucks.  A narrow road with curves will keep the vehicles out.  Any bridges should be able to support at least 40,000 pounds.  Solid gates work.  Fire-fighters will likely pass by your home and go to the next. 

Fire control becomes increasingly difficult as more people move out into the country, especially the second homes of absentee owners.  The priority is to save lives and property.  Protecting the forest comes last.  More homes that are built in a forested area mean more resources will be spent on saving structures than forests.  If you’re considering purchasing and building, think about the fire risk.

Fire is not necessarily all bad.  Planned or prescribed fire is an increasingly attractive vegetation management tool in certain settings.  The idea is to reap the ecological benefits of fire without losing property or experiencing the results of hotter, more destructive wildfire.  In regions of the United States where fire is more readily accepted, it is regularly used as a forestry practice and to reduce fuel loads under controlled conditions to lower the risk of wildfire under uncontrolled conditions. 

Despite the damage a forest fire can cause, it is important to remember that fire also rejuvenates forested ecosystems, especially those that historically depend upon fire for reproduction.  However, this provides little comfort to those who lose a home, or one of their favorite forest areas are blackened.  Wildfire continues to be a threat, even in the Upper Peninsula where large fires have been largely eliminated.  This last month was a good reminder of this.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
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