Wildfires threaten Great Lakes region too


Wildfire spreads in California’s Lake County. Image: Bjorgialt, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Chioma Lewis
Capital News Service

California has been in the news this wildfire season with millions of acres burned and orange skies that look like scenes from an apocalypse film. President Donald Trump says every year he gets a call that the Golden State is on fire.

But wildfires are not just a problem in the West.

Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have vast amounts of forestland, and forested portions of the region have a mixed-pine ecosystem that is home to many fire-loving coniferous trees such as the jack pine.

Paul Rogers, a wildland fire prevention specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the largest fires happen with jack pine as fuel.

“When fire gets into that, it will race for thousands of acres within one day,” Rogers said.

The most recent, large jack-pine forest fire in Michigan was the Duck Lake Fire in 2012 that burned 21,135 acres in Luce County. It was reportedly the state’s third-worst fire since 1881.

Jack pine was also a contributing fuel to Wisconsin’s 2013 Germann Road Fire that burned 7,499 acres.

A wildfire is an uncontrolled, unplanned fire in a forest, grassland or rural area. It can result in massive acreage destroyed, deaths and the destruction of structures.

More wildfires occur in Eastern and Central U.S. states, while states in the West, including California and Oregon, experience larger fires that burn more acres, according to the Congressional Research Service’s recent national wildfire statistics report.

Leanne Langeberg, a public information officer at the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, said the main cause of wildfires in Minnesota is human activity, such as burning debris. That’s also true for Michigan and Wisconsin.

The Minnesota DNR lists other causes including electrical equipment malfunction such as faulty electrical outlets and old appliances, arson and campfires.

Natural activities, such as lightning and the combustion of dry sawdust and leaves, can also cause wildfires.

Spring is the most active season for wildfires in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

When the weather gets warmer, snow starts to melt and the land begins turning green again, a process Langeberg calls “green up.”

“If we get a lot of rain in June and July, fire conditions will typically hold off until the fall months,” Langeberg said. “This year, it’s kind of been on the edge of drought conditions.”

Dry vegetation and low humidity mixed with wind create a recipe for a wildfire disaster.

“All of those parameters together set up a stage — if a spark should take off into a wildfire, any activity like that, a wildfire could spread real rapidly,” Langeberg said.

However, fire is beneficial to jack pines. After a fire, older trees open and release seeds, allowing new ones to grow.

“A lot of conifers need fire — they’re fire-dependent ecosystems,” Langeberg said.

That’s why the three states conduct prescribed burns.

Prescribed burning involves intentionally lighting fires in controlled environments to control invasive species, improve wildlife habitats and maintain fire-dependent environments.

“Fire isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s management of human-caused fires that really puts a different dynamic into managing those ecosystems so that they stay healthy and viable,” Langeberg said.

According to the Congressional Research Service report, states are responsible for fighting wildfires on nonfederal — state, local and private — land.

Most of Michigan’s forestland is publicly owned, primarily about 4 million acres owned by the DNR and about 3 million by the U.S. Forest Service in the Huron-Manistee, Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests.

In Wisconsin, the majority of forestland is privately owned, with about 1.2 million acres managed by the state. Minnesota has about 4.2 million acres of state-administered forestland.

The responsibility for wildfire prevention and control in these states belongs to their DNRs. If needed, they receive assistance from the Forest Service.

In Southern Michigan, local fire departments handle wildfire, according to Rogers.

“They can get there really quick. There’s guys right there and can put it out and it’s done,” Rogers said. “In the northern part, we (the DNR)are quite often the initial attack, or we respond right with the fire department.”

Rogers said that the Michigan DNR is looking at a new program to use fuel or fire breaks, strips of vegetation that act as barriers to slow down fires. That’s a method Wisconsin encourages as well.

“There’s always things that we’re looking at for fuel modifications to help keep things in check,” Rogers said.

In Minnesota, helicopters, air tankers and planes are used during the wildfire seasons, Langeberg said.

The three states, Ontario and Manitoba are part of the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, which supports prevention, suppression and better control of forest fires in the region.

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