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Article #77, November, 2003  
By Bill Cook

     Forest fire is a spectacle of potentially horrific proportions.  The recent conflagration in southern California is a very good example.  Over 1200 homes and 750,000 acres of land were burned.  Longer term impacts to the land and people may be greater than the fire itself.  Doubtless, there will be finger-pointing and hindsight analysis for months to come. 

     The California blazes may have tipped the scale in the recent overwhelming passage of the Healthy Forest Initiative in the U.S. Senate.  Both of our senators voted in favor of the Act.  Now, the House and Senate need to reconcile their respective versions.  Many people may not know much about this important piece of legislation and should not confuse it with efforts underway in Michigan with the same title. 

     Few would argue the need to protect homes, water supplies, and forest resources.  According to Mark Rey, Undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture; “The legislation calls for that by authorizing efforts to prevent big, dangerous fires.” 

     Rey continues by explaining; “The consensus view among scientists is to leave the biggest and best on the land, then return fire to the land through carefully controlled burns at regular intervals.  That’s our priority and it’s the approach the Forest Service is taking with the Healthy Forests Initiative.”  There is, of course, resistance from some quarters that tend to see the legislation from a distorted perspective. 

     The ecological role of wildfire and intentional use of fire as a management tool have been controversial for over 100 years.  The debates are not new.  Ghosts of Pinchot, Ballinger, and Powell have rattled among the U.S. Congress and popular press since the inception of the U.S. Forest Service nearly a century ago.  Control of wildfire was the major issue on newly formed national forests, created to address fears of timber famine and loss of watershed values. 

     Much of the Healthy Forests Initiative addresses the quagmire of environmental and administrative conditions largely in the western forests.  However, the lessons should not be lost here in the Lake States.  Million acre fires are not new to Michigan.  We have had a few and their impacts remain on the land even today. 

     While huge fires now seem unlikely in much of Michigan, we still have very vulnerable forest types in certain landscapes.  Some of the jack pine plains of Baraga, Raco, Gwinn, and other locations are ripe for wildfire.  In 1988, wildfire scorched nearly 1000 acres up the Stonington Peninsula in the Stockyard fire.  In 1990, the 6000 acre Stephan Bridge fire burned over 76 homes near Grayling.  The Tower Lake fire of 1999 burned over 5600 acres and threatened the town of Champion.

     Michigan has a real wildfire threat.  Much of our jack pine has matured without management, especially on private lands.  Oncoming jack pine budworm infestations will add to highly flammable fuel loads over the next few years.  The number of camps and second homes has grown frighteningly fast.  Recreational use has exploded, which is one of the primary sources of ignition. 

     Managed jack pine landscapes break-up age classes and reduce the level of insects, disease, and windthrow.  Young jack pine is less prone to severe burns than old jack pine.  By mixing age-size classes into a mosaic, the odds of successfully fighting the “big one” increases.  This mosaic also serves as better habitat for Michigan’s endangered Kirtland warbler, now present in the Upper Peninsula. 

     Historic regeneration of jack pine regularly involved wildfires several thousand acres in size.  In today’s social, economic, and environmental climate, these big wildfires are one example of why nature does not always offer the best alternative.  The concept of management reducing catastrophic natural disturbance is valid.  Clearcutting patterns in jack pine can simulate the regenerative effects of fire. 

     To a certain extent, a home or camp owner can minimize the chances of losing property to wildfire by following guidelines in Extension Bulletin E-2831.  The Bulletin can be obtained through your County Extension office or from the Internet at [http://forestry.msu.edu/extension/extdocs/E2831.pdf].  But keep in mind that if you live in a fire-prone forest type, the risk of wildfire is always present.  Just ask the folks in southern California. 

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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.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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