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Wildfire Hazards in Michigan
Article #184, June 2012
By Bill Cook

     Recent large wildfires over the Memorial Day weekend in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan demonstrate that parts of our well-forested Lake States remain vulnerable.  Human activities increase the chances of igniting wildfires, although the Duck Lake and Seney Fires in the Eastern UP were of lightning origin. 

     As human populations encroach upon natural woodlands, the risk of property loss increases.  So does the difficulty in fighting these fires.  Lack of forest management and build-up of dead woody material add to conditions that lead to more severe fires. 

     The worst case scenario, perhaps, is a large expanse of mature jack pine within which houses, cottages, and camps are scattered.  Should the fire get into the crowns of these forests, the force is nearly unstoppable by human efforts.  At that point, the weather has to change before firefighters can become effective. 

     This is the case with the Duck Lake wildfire, which grew to well over 20,000 acres by the first of June.  That’s over 30 square miles.  Property damage has been significant.  Michigan has not seen a larger fire since 1976. 

     Most of the major wildfires over the past few decades have been in jack pine types. 

     During the years of low fire danger, the tendency to become complacent grows.  However, this is the time to reduce the risk of fire and to reduce the risk of property damage should a fire occur. 

     Employing the concepts of the Firewise Program will help protect property.  Michigan State University maintains a program and information base for Michigan citizens.  Cutting back vegetation, removing hazards, and building modifications will help protect property in case of wildfire.  The basic idea is to create a more defensible space. 

     Forest management can be used to reduce the risk of wildland fire and minimize its spread when a fire erupts.  Fire breaks, age class differentiation, thinning, and forest type diversification are some of the tools available.  Each of these tools has non-fire protection benefits, as well. 

     Wildfire has been a natural element of forest ecosystems since the glaciers retreated from the Great Lakes region.  Jack pine and red pine are classic examples of habitats adapted to, and driven by, wildfire.  As humans build into these landscapes, they assume a degree of risk, whether they know it or not.  The extensive fires of natural history are no longer a viable option, although the need for those ecological benefits in these forested systems remains. 

     Prescribed fire is one tool to manage fire-adapted ecological systems.  While not possible everywhere, and sometimes controversial, it’s a viable forestry technique.  Forest management that includes clearcutting and thinning can mimic wildfire effects but these techniques are at the discretion of the landowners. 

     A landscape occupied largely by single-age jack pine is at high risk of catastrophic fire, especially as the jack pine matures and fuel loads build.  Forest management can parse the landscape into blocks of different aged jack pine.  Reducing the risk and potential impacts of a crown fire is essential.  Should a fire escape into the crowns of mature jack pine, the fire will drop to the ground in younger age classes.  Once on the ground, fire-fighting efforts are possible. 

     Mature jack pine also becomes a target for jack pine budworm, which can damage and kill large areas of pine forest.  The dead, dry material becomes ripe for wildfire. These are all natural forest dynamics that foresters work with to modify and reduce fire risk. 

     Of course, human behavior to avoid wildfire is critical as well, especially during periods of high risk.  Campfires, sparks from ATVs and other equipment, smoking, fireworks, and other human-origin ignition sources cause most of the wildfires across the Lake States. 

     Wildfire will always be a part of forests as long as forests exist.  However, through forest management and careful development the risks can be minimized.  Assuming an inactive approach to forest ecology and development carries negative consequences, sooner or later. 

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation 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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