NEWBERRY - In 2012, the snow was gone in March and Michigan was experiencing one of its most severe fire seasons in recent memory. Early this May, much of the Upper Peninsula remained covered in snow.
A year ago, the Department of Natural Resources was monitoring extreme drought conditions throughout the state. These exceptional conditions increased wildfire risk - requiring only a spark to ignite a flame, which in this case came from a lightning storm.
"While lightning-caused wildfires in May are not rare, they certainly aren't common either," explained Paul Kollmeyer, resource protection manager for the DNR's Forest Resources Division. "Lightning fires occur more frequently in years with drought conditions, which is why we experienced more of them last fire season. On May 21, 2012, there were six lightning strikes that developed into wildfires."
Because wildfire conditions were "very high" in the Upper Peninsula north of Newberry, one of the May 21 lightning strikes ignited the largest fire Michigan had seen in the past 32 years. The Duck Lake Fire was discovered on May 23 by a DNR wildfire aircraft detection pilot. While it was still small, department crews worked through the night and into the next day to contain and hold it against the wind that was forecasted.
On the afternoon of May 24, a then-small wildfire blew up and began its 11-mile run to Lake Superior. When it was finally contained, the Duck Lake Fire had burned 21,069 acres. More than 230 residences, 161 outbuildings and nine commercial structures were threatened by the fire. Forty-nine residences, 58 outbuildings, two commercial structures and 26 campers were destroyed. The fire totaled more than $3 million in suppression costs.
"Top-notch emergency responders from Luce County, the DNR and other state departments gave their all to suppress the Duck Lake Fire and keep losses to a minimum," Kollmeyer said. "If it wasn't for the coordinated effort, damage could have been far greater."
Bill O'Neill, chief of the Forest Resources Division and state forester, said the hard work didn't stop after the fire was suppressed.
Salvaging What Was Left
While suppression efforts were ongoing, the DNR began plans for the salvage of the state-managed timber that was burned during the fire. It took just one week for a team of 20 professionals to establish sale boundaries and estimate the timber volume on the scarred acres of state forest land.
O'Neill said it was a race against the elements.
"Insects, like wood-boring beetles, moved into the area after the fire and began feeding on the dead trees," said Keith Magnusson, Forest Resources Division Newberry unit manager. "In order to get the most out of what was left after the fire, we had to move quickly before the timber was further deteriorated."
Before the end of the year, 9,784 acres at the Duck Lake Fire site had been prepared for salvage, and 53,857 cords of wood within the area had been salvaged.
"To date, 80 percent of the salvaged wood has been harvested," Magnusson said. "Harvest activities had to stop during the winter due to the amount of snow we received, but we anticipate the remaining 20 percent to be harvested within the next few months."
He added that it's all part of the reforestation plan for the area.
Getting Back to Green
A year later, the forest is naturally recovering. Bracken fern, blueberry bushes, mushrooms and grasses have started to regrow. Pine seedlings are once again growing in the areas that were previously forested. Thanks to Mother Nature, the green is returning. To give her a hand in the process, O'Neill said the DNR has evaluated and prioritized areas that needed planting efforts.
"We have 1,290 acres that are scheduled to be planted with approximately 1.2 million jack pine seedlings during a two-week period that started early this month," he said. "The seedlings will come from the DNR-operated Wyman Nursery, and will be monitored after planting to ensure the planting will be successful."
In addition to its own resources, the DNR received a donation for 150,000 seedlings from the Arbor Day Foundation to reforest the area impacted by the fire.
"Working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, our members and sponsors will have the chance to support high-need replanting projects that protect wildlife habitat and restore woodland forests for the enjoyment of future generations," said Brad Brandt, reforestation manager at the Arbor Day Foundation.
The View Today
Aside from the sprouts, seedlings and returning green, O'Neill did warn that visitors to the area will see some dead trees that were left behind.
"We salvaged timber in areas that have historically been managed for timber production," he said. "We did not salvage timber in areas that were sensitive, such as the Two Hearted River corridor, the Little Two Hearted River corridor or areas near wetland complexes.
"The dead trees that were left in these areas will provide habitat for such wildlife as black-backed woodpecker and provide habitat for cavity nesters. As snags fall over, they will provide habitat for critters on the ground that will use them for shelter; as snags rot they provide structure and stability to the soil."
O'Neill added that the DNR planted some areas of the fire, but it is anticipated that many areas will naturally regenerate, as pine is a species that has adapted to fire.
"As time goes on we will be continually monitoring the effects of this fire and making plans accordingly to ensure sustainability," he said. "It's all part of the plan."
To learn more about wildfire management and the role that fire plays on the forest ecosystem, go to www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.