Life slowly reborn amid U.P. wildfire ash, devastation

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Newberry — This is what’s left of Michigan’s massive Duck Lake fire zone: A hellish beauty, with seedlings pushing up amid towering trees as black as the day they were incinerated.

The aftermath of the fire four years ago has led to a study in helping Mother Nature on a scale not seen before in the state.

More than 21,000 acres burned and nearly 50 homes were lost in the third-worst fire in the state since 1881, a blaze fed by dry conditions and strong winds.

What biologists are finding is sometimes surprising, and it provides an opportunity for a look at the aftermath of the wildfire that began just before Memorial Day and was finally conquered by fire crews in mid-June 2012.

A carpet of green dominates where humans are helping saplings rise amid incinerated jack pines. The storied Two Hearted River appears healthy, erosion is minimal, and trout food thrives.

A new guest is being enticed — a rare bird known to survive in only a few places in the world. Several hundred thousand jack pines were planted with the hope of drawing the songbird.

Then there are the human impacts, dispiriting still for some who have called the area home.

The beginning

May 24, 2012: A small lightning fire considered under control crosses break lines. By 6 p.m., 872 acres have burned. Five hours later, more than 8,000 acres are ablaze. Rainbow Lodge is gone.

State park worker Jake Slosson, 29, was at the Two Hearted River’s Reed & Green Bridge, a popular put-in for campers, canoeists and anglers.

“There was a lot of blue sky, but then you could see them, way in the distance, black clouds like thunderheads,” Slosson said.

He fled — fast. “The sky was turning orange everywhere you looked,” he said. “It was intense. It was very intense.”

Richard Robinson’s store and cabins at the Rainbow Lodge were destroyed. The wind-driven inferno rolled north along treetops and stopped here at the mouth of the river into Lake Superior before turning east.

The store is largely rebuilt now, with separate cabins amid a scarred and charred landscape. It is all for sale, valued about $1 million. The April decision did not come quickly.

“I’m ready to retire,” says Robinson, nearly 63. “Life changed. We can’t go back to the way it was before.

“There are a lot of things I want to do. There are still places I’d like to fish.”

Devastation and recovery

May 25, 2012: By 9 a.m., 20,000 more acres had burned overnight. Gov. Rick Snyder declares a state of disaster in Luce and Schoolcraft counties. Tahquamenon Falls State Park is closed for Memorial Day weekend.

The fire began 14 miles north of Newberry and seven miles west of the state park.

Keith Magnusson, land management supervisor for the DNR’s Newberry Unit, monitors the life and death of trees in the fire path. Each year is carefully documented.

Among the findings: A 2015 survey indicated forest regeneration is occurring naturally in some areas. Heat released seeds from cones. These areas will not have to be replanted.

Elsewhere, more than 2,000 acres have been replanted since 2013 with more than 2.5 million jack pine seedlings. There are plans to plant 350 more acres this year.

Mauro Alvarado was among seasonal workers who hunched over the ground, planting 436,000 jack pine seedlings on 383 acres in 2015. Alvarado has a wide smile but speaks almost no English, the same as the rest of the six-man crew. With shovels and bags of saplings, they can plant 7,000 to 10,000 trees a day.

A devastating tally

May 27, 2012: The blaze is largely contained, at 21,069 acres. For days, firefighters tackle hotspots, which can travel underground. Forty-nine cabins and homes, plus 87 other structures (garages, outbuilding and camping vehicles) were destroyed.

The next day, Luce County Emergency Management allowed landowners to get their first look at the devastation, particularly in the Pike Lake and Little Lake Harbor areas.

The DNR’s Dean Wilson, a veteran of forest fires, surveyed a blasted landscape unimaginable to him.

“I’m looking right at it, and I don’t believe it,” he says. “If somebody would have told me this would happen, I wouldn’t believe it. Not in this forest type.”

Shortly after containment of the wildfire, speculation began about damage to the trout and salmon fishery on the Two Hearted River and the smaller Little Two Hearted River.

Fish continue to thrive, studies show.

Cory Kovacs, fisheries biologist with the DNR’s Newberry unit, is charged with studying changes in the rivers. He points to draft reports. Pool variability. Channel alteration. Bank stability. Studies on macroinvertebrates — fish food — done by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Evaluations of the fish communities are being conducted on the Little Two Hearted and Two Hearted rivers. Each river has two study locations, one outside the fire zone and one within it.

“Overall, we haven’t seen any indications of significant effects on the fish population,” said Kovacs, adding a true assessment could take years.

Hope for the future

May 28, 2012: Little new damage is reported. Firefighters tackle underground hotspots, which can travel long distances in “duff” — peat moss, root systems and other cover several feet thick — for days.

Diane Ricketts hopes to get an offer on what’s left of her Pike Lake Resort. Rickett’s place has been without a hard offer for years, her real estate agent says. The site was listed about two months before the fire, when her husband died.

The home, the pole barn, a small store and gas station survived the fire. Flames here swept left and right, sparing the home but taking the cabins on the peninsula beyond.

She owns 292 acres on the lake, which has a maximum depth of 40 feet.

Fish include northern pike, largemouth bass, walleye, brook trout and yellow perch.

Today, DNR workers and others are also on the watch for a new guest: the rare Kirtland’s warbler.

They’re listening for the distinctive songbird with the bobbing tail announcing territory for his soon-to-arrive mate.

About 916,000 jack pine seedlings were planted in 2014, some specifically to regenerate jack pine at a sufficient density to provide habitat for breeding.

“We don’t have them there yet that we know of,” Magnusson says.

“But the habitat is there. They prefer low-hanging branches of young jack pines for nesting.”

`Totally devastated`

May 31, 2012: Residents saw the devastation firsthand Monday, when authorities took them to the site.

Bob Williams is a resident of Pike Lake. He and others were evacuated. Williams 72, would use the town library or any source of news.

“To see it just totally devastated, just the pure lack of green. There were magnificent trees, hemlock and great white pines. It’s gone,” said Williams, whose Pike Lake place survived when many of his neighbors’ didn’t.

But from his porch today, one can see and smell the fresh cut of wooden construction amid a charred landscape. Some residents have left. Others are rebuilding still today. Parts of the forest look the same as the day Williams sat scouring the internet in the Newberry Library on May 31, 2012.

“Some of it burned so intensely it is dead,” Williams said. “Seeds were incinerated in the cones.” Since this is private land, governmental cleanup is minimal, he said.

Hope for the future

October 2015: Reforestation is well underway. Annual studies have been launched. At least some campers are returning.

Fred and Jill Sutherland have been coming to the Two Hearted River State Forest Campground for years. They have noticed the changes in ground cover and other subtle signs of regeneration.

Fishing is slow, for them at least.

The Wisconsin couple last stayed here in October. They were not fishing. For them, the words “Two Hearted” have special meaning. They are in love.

They have known each other for 25 years. So Fred, 67, and Jill, 54, gathered in a rustic chapel, destroyed by fire and restored by man. Friends and family were on hand. And when the moment arrived, Fred and Jill spoke the eternal promise for togetherness. For rebirth in hard times.

“I do.”

John Barnes is a west Michigan freelance writer.