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History & Ecology of Fire in Michigan

Wildland Fire In Michigan


WildfireFire is an event controlled by fuels, weather, and topography. Fire occurs neary everywhere that fuel in a flammable condition is present in sufficient quantities, and when an ignition source is available. Prior to the appearance of humans in North America, the ingredients for fire were largely controlled by climate. Since human presence, ignition sources and fuels have been modified; people have changed their environment. As a result, the current distribution and composition of vegetation zones and land-based ecosystems have adapted to wildland fires, defined as all fires that burn in natural environments. The role of wildland fire, an important ecological force, cannot be ignored because fire greatly influences ecosystems.





From the beginning, earth, wind, fire, and water were the four major forces of nature which shaped the diverse mosaic of life that is our world. Lightning was the initial match that ignited fires. Fire was probably one of the first products of nature that humans learned to control. When human beings learned to initiate fire, it's occurrence became more widespread.



Humans became the fifth major force of nature, and the patterns of life were forever changed. Most indigenous peoples around the world became adept with fire's uses. Native Americans used fire for many purposes. They used it to kill and collect insects and small game for food, and as a communication device to create smoke for signaling. Fire was also used as a weapon against enemies.

Today, only about 2 percent of all wildland fires in Michigan are caused by lightning strikes; The rest are caused by human activity.

bisonNative Americans have great respect for the fire phenomenon. Some named it "Grandfather Fire." Historically, many Native Americans used fire as a tool to shape their environment and to improve hunting.


A century before European settlers arrived at North American shores on the Mayflower, the bison (or American buffalo), traditionally a western species, moved to the eastern portion of the continent following fires, many of which were probably set by Native Americans. The fires burned the brush and trees and are believed to have helped in the creation of more open areas conducive to growth of grasslands, the lands upon which bison depend for food.


Fire was used by Native Americans for hunting many different animals. European settlers observed Native Americans using fire to herd deer onto peninsulas. Once in these small areas, deer could be hunted more easily from canoes.


The use of fire by Native Americans maintained many ecosystems in a delicate balance for thousands of years. Europeans, however, held a view of fire that was very different from the Native American view of this natural phenomena, and the balance of fire and vegetation changed. As Native American populations were displaced, the European settlers who came after them did not replicate the periodic, light fires that had characterized Native American use of fire. The settlers concentrated on permanent husbandry of crops and livestock. Fences began to create a patchwork across the once open expanses of prairie and forest, and fire became an enemy capable of destroying all that had been achieved.

loggingMichigan was extensively logged toward the end of the 19th century. The White Pine that had once covered Michigan was cut, followed by the hardwood forests, and large expanses of slash (the branches and other debris left after logging) were left behind. Many areas were cleared for farming, and the vegetation was burned to dispose of it. Several catastrophic fires resulted from the indiscriminate burning of slash following logging and land clearing for agriculture.


In the summer of 1871, a drought occurred over much of the Great Lakes region. Slash and debris from logging and land clearing became tinder-dry during the months without rain. From early August no rain fell, pastures and gardens dried up, wells went dry, streams shrank to a mere trickle, and crops failed. Set carelessly or by settlers in clearing land, fires burned everywhere, and ran uncontrolled into the woods and swamps where they continued to smolder. September was equally dry. On October 8, a great wildfire struck the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1300 people in a single night (the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, which received the greater attention). This fire burned over 1,100,000 acres in Wisconsin and Michigan before late fall rains put it out. The Peshtigo wildfire is considered the most devastating fire in U.S. history in terms of both lives and property lost.


Peshtigo fireOvershadowed by the Peshtigo fire and the Chicago fire, a major wildfire swept across lower Michigan at the same time. This fire received little publicity, although two hundred people lost their lives in this fire, and 1,200,000 acres were burned. Like other great conflagrations, it was not a single fire but a combination of hundreds of fires, small and large, that had been burning unattended for weeks, only to flare up and unite when conditions became acute.

The disaster was most complete between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Here "an area 40 miles square was completely devastated, and over 50 people were found burned to death." While the worst was over by October 19, the fire wasn't completely out for over a month. No accurate record of the area burned or the loss sustained was ever made, but it has been estimated that more than 2 million acres burned over, several hundred families were left homeless, and that at least 200 lives were lost.


Ten years later, the Thumb area of Michigan was again hit by a major catastrophe. While not as extensive as the 1871 fire, the fire of September 1881, commonly known as the Thumb fire, was more severe and did more damage since settlers had begun pouring into the region and logging had gotten underway. As a result, more people were rendered homeless and the loss was greater. It is estimated that this fire burned well over one million acres, cost 282 lives, and did more than $2,250,000 worth of damage.

Like the 1871 fire, the fire of 1881 came at the end of an extremely severe drought and was the result of hundreds of land-clearing fires whipped into a seething cauldron of flame by high winds. It was worse in the Saginaw Valley and Thumb region where it burned over much of the same territory that had burned ten years before.


old tractorMichigan's first comprehensive forest fire law was enacted in 1903 (Act 249). It authorized the state to protect lands outside of state forests, made township supervisors, mayors, and village presidents ex-officio fire wardens, and authorized the payment of temporary fire wardens. Fire wardens were authorized to prevent and suppress fires, impress firefighters, arrest fire law violators, and report on fires.



loggersThe current Department of Natural Resources (Conservation) was established in 1921, and the responsibility for the prevention and suppression of forest fires was transferred to the new department. The old forest fire law was broadened to extend protection responsibilities to the entire state. Ex-officio fire wardens were eliminated, and all fire control responsibilities were assumed by the state.



The state continued to experience disasterous wildfires through the early years of the 20th century. This led to the creation of the Forest Fire Experiment Station (FFES) in 1929 to investigate how wildfires behave, how to manage forest fuels, and how to use mechanized equipment to fight forest fires. It is in this last area, the use of equipment to fight fires, where the FFES has had its greatest impact.



old fire pumpEarly firefighting efforts meant deploying hundreds of people with shovels, and horse-drawn plows (which were not intended for this purpose), and buckets of water. This crude method was often not very successful, and other methods were sought. The state purchased it's first tractor for fireline construction in 1917. Since then, the crawler tractor mounted plow has become the most important tool in wildfire suppression. The development of highly mobile water-pumping units greatly increased the effectiveness of the fireline tractor plow. Over the years, Michigan has developed equipment and tactics specifically for a small, highly-trained, mechanized wildfire suppression force.



Peshtigo fireIn the 1930's, researchers in the Southern U.S. began challenging the negative notions about fire that had come as a result of the catastrophic wildfires experienced around the country in the late 1800's and early 1900's. They argued that fire was an integral part of natural landscapes. Since then, fire science has become an important part of managing wildland systems. We've learned, for example to see the difference between a wildland fire (a fire burning naturally-occurring fuels), and a wildfire (a wildland fire burning out of control). Prescribed burning (fires set according to a prescription which describes the acceptable weather and fuel conditions under which a fire can be safely set to accomplish land management objectives) is now an important land management tool.



jack pine conesIn Michigan, prescribed burning is an important means of managing jack pine for the endangered Kirtland's Warbler. Unlike most trees, jack pine does not drop all of its seeds as they ripen. The majority of the seeds remain in closed cones that stay on the branches for many years. When a fire occurrs, the thick cone protects the jack pine seeds from the intense heat. That same heat, however, opens the scales of the cone and releases the seed onto the ground where the fire has removed much of the existing vegetation, preparing the site for the new seedlings. Prescribed fire is used to simulate a wildfire and open the cones, and to remove excess slash after logging so the site can be either seeded or planted to new trees.



Prescribed fire is also used to maintain prairies. Many endangered species depend on warm season grasses and prairie remnants for their survival. Fire is also used to maintain large openings and oak savannahs. Savannahs are open, park-like areas with scattered trees. These areas need periodic fires to keep brush and trees from turning them into a forest.


Prescribed fire is also used to restore wetlands. Over time, cattails can force out other plants, and fill in areas of open water needed by waterfowl. By burning cattails during the winter months the open areas can be restored.


Today, Michigan's Fire Managers have integrated fire suppression, fire prevention, and prescribed fire into an overall fire management strategy. Where fire is needed to maintain sensitive ecosystems, it is applied so that the fire can be safely controlled while accomplishing the land management objectives.


While most ecosystems in Michigan need periodic wildland fires, wildfires (fire out of control) still place lives and property of Michigan citizens at risk. Most Michigan wildfires are caused by humans, these fires occur close to where people live and play. Fire prevention is still an important aspect of Michigan's wildfire protection program. Smokey's message that ... "Only you can prevent wildfires," is still as important as ever.