From the Braver Institute
A fire broke out at The Seney National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago (something that was quickly overshadowed by what became known as the Duck Lake Fire in Luce County), and with it came memories of my father. Now I had promised myself that I was not going to write any more columns about my dad for a while—and I will keep that promise—but my dad and the “original” Seney Fire set the stage this week.
The recent Seney Fire (officially the Pine Creek North Fire), as well as the Duck Lake Fire are a drop in the proverbial bucket in size when compared to the original Seney Fire (officially the Walsh Ditch Fire) of 1976. Now don’t get me wrong here, I am not downplaying the loss of personal property that the Duck Lake Fire has brought. My heart truly goes out to those who have been affected, but the 1976 Seney Fire was three times the size of these recent fires combined.
The Seney Fire proved to be a bit of a boom for the area’s economy, what with some 1200 people fighting it. The fire meant jobs for some of the unemployed, and it meant a boost in revenue for nearby business owners. Some of these people actually set new fires to maintain their recent boost in income. The fire camps were also a great source of free tools and equipment for some unscrupulous locals.
A full-time law enforcement team at the scene of the fire was needed, and my dad was put in charge of that team. In 1976 my dad was the undersheriff for Marquette County, and the powers that be had given him and a team of local police officers jurisdiction over the refuge.
My dad would return home every few days with the latest fireline maps, and bulletins released to those involved in the effort. I would read all of the details, and study the maps carefully. I found it all very fascinating, as at that time I was somewhat of an expert on fighting forest fires, and I suspect that it was due to my expertise that my dad took me with him to spend a couple of days patrolling the refuge.
A year or so prior to this, I had gained first-hand knowledge of fire fighting. My best friend, Denny, and I had planned on going camping, which at that time meant sleeping in a tent in his backyard. Since we were going to be roughing it for the first time in our young lives, we figured that we should get a little “practice” in, and by “practice” I mean building fires.
We set out for the wilds of the clear-cut area not quite a quartermile behind my house. There was a lot of sand around, and we figured it was a good place to get some “practice” in.
During the course of our “practicing” we discovered what now may be referred to as “controlled burning”. We found that the dead grass on the ground burned very well, and we would set a small patch of it on fire, burning an area of roughly ten square feet before we would “control” it by stomping it out, and then we would do it again. “Practice”, you know.
The fire line of one of these “controlled burns” had extended a little too far, and we had to take quick action. Running faster and faster around the ever expanding fire, we stomped out the hot spots, but despite our best efforts we could not keep the fire contained. You would think that with our countless minutes of practice, we would have been prepared for such an event.
When it looked as if there was no chance of us stopping the fire from reaching the jackpine brush piles left over from the clear-cutting years before, I made the decision to bring in reinforcements. I told Denny that I was going for backup. He hollered that we didn’t need help, we were seasoned pros and could handle it, but I knew it was more than we could take care of.
I ran into the house and told Ma Braver to call the fire department. Since she would not appreciate our playing with mat...err...our “practicing”, I hurriedly explained that we had “found” a fire burning, and that Denny was still there trying to put it out.
The fire department arrived, and they stepped in to relieve Denny, who had been doing his best to “contain” the fire.
We knew that letting our “controlled burn” get out of hand like that was going to land us in hot water, so we devised the only plan we could come up with to get out of it. It seemed like our best bet was to go back to my house, and sit quietly on the couch, staring at the floor. We didn’t want to arouse suspicion by joining everyone else in the neighborhood that had turned out to watch the firemen battle the blaze. It would look more professional if we made it seem like fire trucks and bulldozers running around in our backyard was old hat to us.
The tactic apparently worked, as we were never reprimanded for our carelessness, although we officially gave up “practicing controlled burning.”
The lessons we learned that day were priceless.
Thinking back now, I am sure that someone at the Walsh Ditch Fire camp had heard of our exploits, and had asked my dad if he could bring me in as a consultant.
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