After the smoke clears

NEWBERRY – Nearly a year after a lightning strike touched off the state’s third-largest wildfire in more than a century, you can still smell burned wood in the air when walking through the blackened and cutover timberlands in northern Luce County.

From its point of origin near a remote namesake lake, about 14 miles north of Newberry, the Duck Lake Fire spread voraciously as it raced north. Pushed by strong winds, the fire consumed houses, camps and vehicles, heading toward Lake Superior, which would stop its advance.

The blaze burned more than 8,000 acres in its first day and charred another 6,300 acres that night. Before being declared fully contained June 13, the fire crews began battling May 24 burned 21,069 acres, caused $4.1 million damage, displaced wildlife and residents and destroyed 136 structures, including the well-known Rainbow Lodge at the mouth of the Two-Hearted River.

But almost immediately after the fire, amid the devastation, there were signs of new life, regeneration and rebuilding – processes that are continuing today.

“So far, so good, this will be the first full year we’ll have to look at it since the fire,” said Keith Magnuson, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Newberry Unit manager. “This is going to be a work in progress in the years to come.”

Last fall, natural regeneration of jack pine was already in evidence with seedlings standing an inch tall. The pines have tightly closed gray seed cones that pop open during wildfires.

“Between blueberry bushes, bracken ferns and native grasses there was a lot of stuff had already begun to come back,” Magnuson said.

Of the total acreage burned, 15,700 acres was state land. Magnuson said 9,784 acres of that were being logged to salvage mostly jack, red and white pines from the burn zone.

“Less than a month after the fire started, we had wood up for sale,” Magnuson said.

About 54,000 cords were logged and sold at greatly reduced prices. Timber valued at about $7.5 million before the fire brought a total of $515,856 as salvage. Magnuson said the average price for a cord of jack pine before the blaze was $68. The salvage wood sold for an average of $7 a cord.

Tree felling begun last summer is continuing.

“We’re about 80 percent done with the cutting,” Magnuson said.

Crews are also winding up the planting of 1.2 million jack pine seedlings over 1,290 acres.

Kristie Sitar, a wildlife habitat biologist with the DNR in Newberry, said the regenerating jack pine stands will eventually provide suitable nesting habitat for Kirtland’s warblers, a recovering species that nests on the ground under young jack pine trees.

The fire has provided a bonanza for dozens of black-backed woodpeckers, as well, which moved into the burned out area last year and have remained to feed on beetles they locate in the wood of burned trees.

Blackened standing trees in the burn zone with bark broken away are a telltale sign of the woodpeckers’ presence.

Sitar said ground-nesting birds will return this spring while many tree-nesting species will shift to other areas. The burned landscape also could provide new leks for sharptail grouse.

“It was largely a pine area,” Sitar said. “We’re going to go from a forest where some of it was mature and some of it was regenerating to one that’s regenerating.”

When the fire broke out, many birds with eggs in their nests flew to safety and their clutches were destroyed. Sitar said those birds likely nested again last summer outside the burn area or some may have returned to nest in lightly-burned areas.

“Anything that can run or fly is going to flee when the fire is on their tail,” Sitar said.

Like the bird eggs, some young fishers and pine martens were left in dens.

“We probably lost some young of the year,” Sitar said.

Sitar said most the fire burned before deer had dropped their fawns. Sprouting lush grasses gave deer returning to the fire zone something to feed on. Tracks were seen soon after the blaze was put out.

But this year could be harder for deer.

“There are some parts of the fire area where you can see for a mighty long way and that’s not a great place for a deer to be hanging out,” Sitar said.

Black bears may find the area enticing with blueberry bushes flourishing after the fire.

From a recreation perspective, the Two-Hearted Off-Road Vehicle Trail has reopened as have state forest campgrounds at Culhane Lake and the mouth of the Two-Hearted River.

Fishermen angling for steelhead in the Two-Hearted walked among burned trees along the sandy riverbanks.

The Rainbow Lodge that stood a short distance up a gravel road from the campground shows no signs so far of rebuilding. Near a pay phone, dumpster and some fire rings, a small airstrip wind sock bobbed in the breeze, melted.

An answering machine message recorded shortly after the fire remains at the lodge phone number of Richard and Kathy Robinson.

“The Rainbow Lodge, Two-Hearted Canoe Trips and the Robinsons’ home was completely destroyed by the Duck Lake Wildfire May 24th, 2012,” the message said. “We will be closed until further notice. There are no services, no shuttles, no vacancies, no campground available at this time.”

The Robinsons plan to rebuild their home and a nearby chapel this summer.

“Our two newest cabins survived, built in 2003, and the oldest rustic cabin built in the 50s, also a set of outhouses,” Kathy Robinson said. “We have not yet made a decision on rebuilding the store due to final clean-up and insurance issues.”

A few miles to the south, the Pike Lake State Forest Campground remains closed.

Magnuson said the fire burned site markers, an information station and every picnic table in the campground. Several trees were killed and some that were hazards to campers had to be cut out.

Ernest Houghton, service forester for the DNR’s Escanaba field office, said several second homes around Pike Lake burned, along with others near the Two-Hearted River and Lake Superior.

“A lot of people lost their cottages, some are rebuilding already, others are waiting for whatever reason,” Houghton said.

Houghton has been doing field damage assessments with private landowners.

An application has been made to the Farm Service Agency for $1.5 million in federal funding from the Emergency Forest Restoration Program to assist private landowners in restoring forest resources lost to the blaze.

“I just want to make sure the applications are complete so when the money becomes available they’re ready to go,” Houghton said.

Houghton – who has completed assessments for 47 families and 58 land parcels – said the fire burned to the water at Pike Lake.

Some homeowners there were cleaning up their property with the buzzing of chainsaws heard over the lake. Any federal grant money issued to replace vegetation will have requirements landowners leave a buffer around their dwellings to defend against wildfire.

Houghton said some landowners lost all of the vegetation on their property. There are a limited number of replacement species that can grow in the sandy jack pine barrens.

“There were areas where the organic duff layer was burned right off the soil and that’s not a good situation because it contains a lot of moisture,” Houghton said.

Very little damage was found along stream banks.

“I did not observe a lot of erosion, which I felt was very fortunate,” Houghton said.

After the burn zone regenerates and is rebuilt, the Duck Lake Fire will likely remain in the minds of northern Luce County residents, firefighters and natural resource managers for decades to come.

In 2007, the Sleeper Lake Fire – which also started with a lightning strike and burned 18,185 acres just a few miles to the south and west of Duck Lake – left residents thinking they’d never see anything like that again.

At that time, Sleeper Lake was the largest fire in Michigan in 27 years and the biggest blaze in the Upper Peninsula since the Walsh Ditch Fire at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in 1976.

Then came the larger, more destructive, more ravenous, Duck Lake Fire.

How far back in history does Luce County have to look to find a comparable blaze?

“We’ve had little fires in the recent past of 50 years,” Magnuson said. “It’s far enough back so there’s no good record of it.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is