The Great Michigan Fire

The Great Michigan Fire

Throughout history there have been wild forest fires raging across this country; Michigan was no exception. 1871 is mostly remembered for the The Great Chicago Fire, and few know about The Great Michigan Fire (actually a series of simultaneous fires [Citation
last = Hanines
first = D. A.
last2 = Sando
first2 = R. W.
title = Climatic Conditions Preceding Historically Great Fires in the North Central Region
place =
publisher = U.S.D.A. Forest Service Research Paper NC-34; see Figure 1.
year = 1969
volume =
edition =
url = http://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/rp/rp_nc034.pdf
doi =
id =
isbn =
] ) that swept through Michigan at the same time. The latter was possibly caused by the same winds that fanned the Chicago flames; some believe lightning or even meteor showers may have started the fires (Sodders 8-9). No matter the cause, the effects were devastating. Entire cities, towns and villages (including Holland, Manistee and Port Huron) were lost. Then in 1881, yet another devastating fire following part of the same path swept through Michigan, destroying the entire "Thumb" area.

Origins

The fires of October 8, 1871 and September 5, 1881 both started after long dry summers. Most areas hadn’t seen rain in months, making the dried up vegetation and logging debris, known as “slash” fuel for the fires. These fires were the result of hundreds of smaller land-clearing fires whipped together to form a massive wall of flames by gale force winds (“Wildland” 2).

Contributing Factors

In the mid-1830s logging began in Michigan and grew into a significant industry. Michigan was extensively logged for the eastern white pine, measuring 150 ft. tall and exceeding five feet in diameters, along with the hardwood forests.

By 1854, sixteen mills were in operation, producing over thirteen million board feet of lumber, leaving behind branches, bark and massive quantities of unused wood. (“The Necessities” 1-2). The wilted vegetation from the drought conditions and the gale force winds allowed the flames to sweep across large areas at astounding speeds, sending burning embers flying miles through the sky. Not only was the land burnt and left barren, thousands of building (houses, barns, stores and mills) were destroyed with no lumber left to rebuild. Hundreds of families were left homeless. The loss of property was never able to be accurately estimated and the loss of life was largely based on family members reporting them missing. At this time in Michigan there were hundreds to thousands of lumberjacks and salesmen spread out across the state, along with settlers in remote areas making it impossible to total the loss. Some estimated the loss of life at fewer than 500, but no one really knows. Once the fires started it was reported that gale force winds swept across Michigan carrying flaming boards of lumber some fourteen miles over the great Menominee River and set other fires along the Michigan-Wisconsin border. A painted sign that had become airborne during the Peshtigo Fire was discovered near the burned village of Birch Creek (Sodders 8). Some claim that lightning started the fires, while others say meteor showers were to blame. Author Mel Waskin, who wrote Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet, stated that a comet collided with the earth, and that Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan were all showered with fiery particles at exactly the same time (Sodders 9).

Relief Aid

In 1881 Clara Barton, at the age of 60, founded the American Red Cross and the first official disaster they responded to was the Michigan fire of 1881 with money, clothes and household items (www.redcross.org). After the fire of 1881 more than 14,000 people were made dependent on public aid and over 2000 barns, dwellings and schools were destroyed. Damage in 1881 was estimated to be in excess of $2,346,943 (Nesbit 2).

Fire Protection

After the fires of 1881 people started to organize fire fighting plans and by the 1900’s the timber barons were suffering huge losses due to forest fires, so they developed the Northern Forest and Protection Association to manage forest fires in Michigan, later replaced by the USDA Forest Service (Sobber 239). However, the Ford Motor Company, who owned hundreds of forest acreage, is noted for already having a serious conservation and cleanup methods in place, along with maintaining their own fire towers and timber patrols (Sodders 240). Fire fighting started with man vs. nature; fires would erupt and burn until they ran out of fuel sources or drown by rain. The early settlers would use bucket brigades, but they were no match for the towering infernos. It wasn’t until 1917, that Michigan purchased its first tractor for firefighting (“Wildland“3). The first “Fire Truck” was developed and used in the early 1930’s making fire fighting as we know it today.

Benefits of Fire

As devastating as forest fires can be, they are beneficial to the land by burning out the undergrowth and brush, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, thereby supporting new growth. The ashes along with the dead trees decaying after a fire help by adding nutrients to the soil. Forest fires also help with insect pest control by killing off older or diseased trees (“Fire“2).

References

ources

“Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross”. American Red Cross Museum. Oct. 12, 2007

Lincoln, Judge James H. (ret.), and James L. Donahue. Fiery Trial. Historical Society of Michigan, 1984

Massie, Larry B.. Voyages Into Michigan’s Past. Avery Color Studios, 1988

Nesbit, Joanne. “Michigan History Series“. U-M News and Information Services.Aug. 29, 1996. Oct. 10, 2007

Sodders, Betty. Michigan on Fire. Thunder Bay Press, 1997, U.S.A.

Terrie, Philip G. “The Necessities of the Case“: The Response to the Great Thumb Fire of 1881”.Michigan Historical Review. Sept. 22, 2005. Oct. 12, 2007

[http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-30301_30505_30816-24038--,00.html “Wildland Fire In Michigan”. History & Ecology of Fire in Michigan April 2, 2002, updated May 14, 2004, Oct.12, 2007]


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