Only You Can Mitigate Forest Fires

“A bright light came up out of the south, directly in rear of the town, and the fierce gale bearing it on directly toward the doomed city” [Absolute Michigan]. This account referred to the Peshtigo fire which occurred in 1871 in October. claims it is “the most devastating fire in U.S. history in terms of both lives and property lost.” A drought lasting many months preceded the event, leading to its intensity. The event caused 1,300 deaths and devastated over a million acres of land. Simultaneously, another series of fires hit Lower Michigan also destroying over a million acres of land.

In 1881, the Thumb region of Michigan was hit by yet another series of fires. Although the damage was not as wide spread as the 1871 fire, it was far more extreme. claims, “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.

Many problems led to these disasters and it is possible that some could have been avoided, if not at least lessened. For the Peshtigo fires, the smaller fires could have been treated and not amassed so strongly. A proper irrigation system could have made the drought less extreme and the fires less likely. Educating the public at the time about the dangers of forest fires, especially in times of drought, could have prevented some of the recklessness of individuals with fires. Regulations on land clearing through burning techniques definitely could have saved lives.

In 1903, a law was passed to prevent events such as these from happening. Fire wardens were established to monitor fires and distinguish fires when possible. They also were given the power to arrest citizens who did not adhere to fire safety laws. Thankfully with these laws in place, events of those magnitudes are far less likely to take place.

Sean Smith



One response

  1. My reactions to this post are mixed. It is true that fires have historically been a regular phenomenon in this state, and a threat to our agriculture and well being since the peninsulas were settled. But then I start to sort of lose you. Fires are pretty much the only natural disaster of any true and consistent threat to Michigan. Our crazy weather makes things worse by causing frequent cloud-to-ground lightning strikes; Michigan is ranked number two in the nation for lightning strike related injuries and deaths… but they are also the cause for the majority of forest fires now days. In urban and agricultural settings, fire is generally bad, it poses a serious threat to property, crops, and the well-being of the populace; it is an unwelcome disturbance… but in nature, disturbance is the norm. Fire is a necessary function of the ecological process, forests couldn’t thrive without it. It only becomes an issue when it poses a threat to human dwellings. Things like irrigation aren’t appropriate mitigatory measures because they aren’t natural. Silvicultural processes and proper forest management in an effort to minimize the impact of human activity on the natural functions of the forest ecosystems have been the keys to ensuring our forests continue to thrive while keeping the threat of fire to population centers to a minimum.

    I totally agree with you that the state and federal government has done a great job in the last century to minimize the amount of human started fires and their potential threat to the people of Michigan, and I completely get that THAT was your main point, I guess I just wanted to speak for the whole picture; that fire is necessary and that managing the threat has been all about, well, learning to play with fire without getting burned.

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