These Wildfires May Never Really Leave; They Just Go Underground To Flame Up Anytime

 
on August 04 2012 2:20 PM

While the rural village of Newberry lays claim to the title of "Official Moose Capital of Michigan," in recent years it has played host to more dangerous visitors than seasonal moose watchers and snowmobilers: namely, two of the worst wildfires in the state’s history – the Duck Lake in June and the Sleeper Lakes in 2007.

The Duck Lake fire is still uppermost in everyone’s memory in the region. Over a period of three weeks, the inferno devoured 21,000 acres of forest and brush in the hinterlands of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a relatively poor, bucolic area, loved by canoers, hunters, loggers and tourists hungry to see the Northern Lights or camp in stunning natural surroundings.

The Duke Lake was a much larger blaze than July's catastrophic Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which torched about 18,000 acres and got so much attention across the country, including a President Obama flyover. Before it was contained, the Duke Lake fire destroyed 141 properties with 136 structures, including 49 homes or cabins.

Like Sleeper Lakes, it was an unlikely and eye-opening incident in this lightly inhabited area in the northern reaches of the state, bounded on three sides by Lake Superior, the St. Mary's River, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, with a population density of only 18.2 people per square mile compared to 174 people per square mile in the rest of Michigan. “Over the last decade it's been like, 'how did this happen?'" said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Upper Peninsula Resource Protection Manager Celeste Chingwa, who has worked for the department for 27 years. “It may be years before we get another major event like this, or it could be a trend of the future.”

But that is not the only fire-related uncertainty facing the residents of this area. A curious but little known natural phenomenon of wildfires in forested areas is keeping the Duke Lakes blaze alive underground, beneath the Upper Peninsula's soil – and it could reemerge without warning in almost any location. These subterranean infernos thrive off of tree roots and peat, sometimes for months or even years, before cropping up again to start more fires above the soil line.

When underground organic mass such as swamp peat (a heavy turf of decayed vegetation and moss) catches fire, said Chingwa, "it doesn't even look like it's burning. It just looks like dry leaves, but it's extremely hot. And it can move across large areas without you even knowing it.”

There is scarcely a forested region in the world not affected by peat fires in recent years. In western Victoria an underground blaze has been burning for nearly 15 years, reigniting above ground acreage almost every dry and hot season. And a couple of years ago, a peat fire in Central Russia emerged from the soil to burn thousands of homes around Moscow and engulf the capital city in smoke. The Upper Peninsula had its own experience with a peat blaze after a 1987 wildfire; the underground fires smoldered for months before coming to the surface outside of ineffective containment lines that had been dug with bulldozers.

These underground blazes are extremely dangerous for firefighters because of their tendency for spitting back up steam or flames – and they are so hot that they can melt boots if a firefighter stands too long in one spot. Generally, firefighters try to control subterranean fires by either digging up the ground to the layer below the peat and then turning the soil over before compressing it to squeeze out the oxygen. Alternately, a channel can be dug to direct the fire through the peat layer to minerals underneath it that ultimately smother the blaze. When these approaches don’t work, the area may need to be flooded.

But all of these efforts are time-consuming and expensive and to identify where peat fires are hiding and may emerge, an extraordinary degree of continuous surveillance over vast distances is required. Even wealthy regions have a hard time to supply the human and machine resources need to keep tamp down this potential menace. But in places like the Upper Peninsula, where there’s little work once the tourists go home -- in Luce County, where Newberry is, the median annual salary is only $23,542 and 14.4 percent of residents are getting food-stamps or other public benefits -- there’s not enough money in the till to protect the region from these fires.

Which, in turn, only exacerbates an already bad economic situation that the wildfires and their wake create. The unanticipated increasing presence of above and below ground fires has already had a detrimental impact on the local economy. When the Sleeper Lakes fire came through "a really big fear was that it was going to get to Oswald's bear farm," said Newberry native Katherine Rosier, a Central Michigan University professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work.

Oswald's is a popular family destination where visitors can view “29 live roaming black bears.” Oswald’s made it but The Rainbow Lodge wasn’t as lucky. Situated at the mouth of the Two Hearted River made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his story "Big Two-Hearted River" (coincidentally the lead character Nick Adams fished there after discovering that a fire had destroyed the nearby town of Seney), the lodge burned to the ground in the Duck Lake fire after 40 years of operation. This site alone had attracted thousands of outdoors people to the region each year, supporting many of the local businesses as well.

As word of destruction of places like the Rainbow Lodge spread, misinformation throughout the region ultimately hurt tourism even in places not directly affected by the Duke Lake blaze. For example, Northern border agents were telling people travelling from Canada to the town of Paradise, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula that "you can't go there; it's totally gone, the Best Western, everything," said William Ferguson, who works at Curley's Paradise Motel in Paradise, about 40 miles from Newberry.

With little local money on hand and diminished contributions from the state and federal government, properly fighting fires like Duke Lake, especially if they go underground, is a virtual impossibility. "We have in the past had more fire officers available to monitor this," Chingwa said.

Consequently, the Department of Natural Resources has resorted to flyovers looking for surface fires and sending in teams to put out fires only when they clearly emerge from below the ground. They are seeing suspicious fires emerge in a third to half of the Duke Lake contained zone.

Worsening the financial resource problem is that the number of able-bodied firefighters in Michigan has taken a big hit since 2006 when basic fitness requirements for temporary manpower to deal with wildfires were instituted. These firefighters must be able to complete 11 sit-ups, 10 pushups, 20 40-pound pull downs, and 9 minutes on a treadmill with three, one-minute rest intervals. After these rules were put in place, "our labor force dropped by two-thirds," Chingwa said.

Ongoing drought conditions are not helping the situation either. The Department of Natural Resources begins watching closely for wildfires when the drought level reaches 300 (zero is considered saturated). The weather station below the Duck Lake fire region is currently reporting a drought rating of 228, but that station has received roughly ten times the amount of rain that the actual fire region has.

With all of these problems and facing a sneaky foe that is invisible except in intervals but deadly when it appears, the people of the Upper Peninsula maintain a bit of the gallows humor about their predicament. Wildfires, some in the area say, can be a short-term economic boon to these hard-wrung communities.

When fires rage, firefighters from around the state are brought in to fight them, there isn’t a room to be found in local lodging venues and bars and restaurants are packed with patrons.

During the Sleepers Lake fire, there were "huge fire crews, filling all the hotels,” said Rosier. “People lined the streets and applauded when they arrived. It's a really good thing for business."

That may be so. But when they leave, they leave something behind, underground that could cost a lot more to control than the total bill to fill all the hotel rooms in the Upper Peninsula.

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