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Wednesday, May 22, 2013



...9,000 ACRES...




Wednesday, 9:00 AM. 42 degrees F, wind N, light with occasional stronger gusts.  The sky is overcast and it had been raining but has stopped.  The barometer stands at 29.88 in. and the humidity is 97%.  The weather has been lousy but the daffodils and forsythia love it and are lasting a long time.  The warblers are migrating through.  I caught a glimpse of a black and white warbler in the woods, and warbler songs, which I unfortunately do not recognize, fill the morning air.  We were elated to have a Baltimore oriole at the feeder this morning, and with the chickadees setting up housekeeping on the porch and the hummingbirds we have an abundance of bird life just out the patio door.
   Our trip to Spooner went well.  It is about two hours southwest of Bayfield and far enough south to be at least a week ahead in bloom time, with Juneberries and cherries blooming, a few apples and crabapples as well.  I will check our cherry and apple orchards today to see whether they have started to bloom.
   On our return trip we took state highway 27 north out of Hayward so we could go through some of the area of forest that burned a few days ago. It is about halfway between Hayward and Brule, and just north of Bayfield County Hwy. N.  I stopped in at a forest service garage at the intersection of N and 27 and talked to several of the equipment operators, who said the fire was out but it had been hard to contain.  The burned over area was 9,000 acres and forty-seven buildings were destroyed, including seventeen homes. Fortunately there was no loss of life.  From what we could see from the road the vegetation was mostly  plantations of young pine trees, a mixture of white, red and Jack pine.  The burned woods were completely destroyed, most of the trees being between fifteen and twenty feet tall.  The area I saw was all planted  pines, with little or no diversity of other species (that may not hold for the entire fire area).  The fire, when stopped, abutted similar plantations interspersed with huge acreages of slash on the ground.  Conifers and slash equal fire...not a question of whether it will burn, but when.  I don't think there was much in the way of living woody vegetation left in the burned area.  Jack pine old enough to bear seed cones regenerate by seed after a fire, as the cones remain tightly closed until a fire opens them and the seeds can fall out; Jack pine is a species pretty much dependent upon fire for reproduction by seed, but I have no idea if the jack pine which burned will regenerate.
   I am not trained in traditional forestry so my general comments on silviculture should be greeted with some skepticism, but just surveying the situation with my own related knowledge and training I can say that I don't see much sense in the plantation planting approach, or their design.  Certainly far greater species diversity would make ecological sense, and where there are pure stands of conifers, either by nature or design, I would think it wise to have what I would call a patterned landscape, with broad meadow or grassy areas as natural firebreaks.  I can envision landscapes of great beauty a well as usefulness.  Of course such patterns would would not be "natural" and would need to be maintained, but I can't imagine the cost being much different from fire suppression and the periodic loss of thousands acres of commercial timber.  I should emphasize that I am not anti-logging, and appreciate the beneficial effects of logging on most game species and wildlife, which thrive under conditions of new forest growth and forest edge vegetation.  I encourage comments on the subject from readers.
  I picked up "Firestorm at Peshtigo" by Denise Gess and William Lutz and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  I could not put it down, and am having a hard time getting it out of my mind.  It is absolutely riveting.  It is an excellent history of the worst forest fire in US history, so full of first hand accounts and quotations that it reads like a novel.  It is chilling, gruesome, and scientifically informative all at once.  The Peshtigo fire was the climax of many fires all burning at once, in the same time frame, and occurred on the same day, October 7th 1871, as did the great Chicago fire, which eclipsed it in news worthyness perhaps, but not in loss of life and property.  In fact, as it turns out, the Chicago and Peshtigo fires were part of the same immense pattern of cyclonic activity, drought and extreme low pressure that spurred tornadoes and fires across much of the Midwest at the same time.  The Peshtigo firestorm (actually including numerous smaller communities in several large counties in the area of Lake Michigan's Green Bay, and in particular Occonto and Door Counties) was by all accounts a tornado and immense fire acting together to create the destructive force of atomic bombs, blowing huge white pines out of the ground in fiery explosions, turning sand to glass and burning as much as three feet of topsoil  down to subsoil and rock.  Ships on Green Bay and on the big lake itself caught fire from blowing, burning debris. Peat bogs burned afterwards for years.  This is a tale also of greed and destruction of nature which left huge amounts of slash in the forests, along railway rights of way and in lumber mill yards.  It is also a tale of the casually stupid use of clearing farm land, railroad rights of way, to burn wood waste and so was looked upon as a friend, and it turned into the worst of enemies.
   The German Road fire that burned 9,000 acres several days ago was but a marshmallow roast compared to the firestorm at Peshtigo, and yet it was the worst fire in Wisconsin since 1980.
   Have we come full circle now, once again taking the threat of fire in nature so casually that we think it is no longer dangerous, while we ignore the slash on the forest floor and the vast plantations of fire prone conifers?

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