I received a lesson in how quickly a forest fire can develop and spread while hiking the Round Island Point Preserve several weeks ago. Well, it wasn’t much of a hike, because as I stepped into what is one of the Little Traverse Conservancy’s largest preserves in my neck of the woods, I was distracted.
The first distraction was what appeared to be a bear track in the mud. I bent to take a photo, and then only took a few steps before I was stopped in my tracks again, this time by the scent of wood smoke. I surveyed my surroundings and saw a plume of smoke coming out of what appeared to be a hole in a dead tree created by feeding woodpeckers.
There was no visible flame, but there was a strong wind, and the smoke began to increase.
I noticed a truck in the driveway of the house across the street from the trail entrance, so I ran over to see if they had a bucket that I could fill and pour down the hole in the tree. No one was home, and no bucket was available, so I called 9-1-1.
After I told the dispatcher what was happening, she sent firefighters out. The crew arrived in less than 15 minutes. During that time, I took a few photos and was surprised at how quickly the brisk wind and dry conditions fueled the fire. The smoke grew heavier and flames developed from the hole in the tree. Pieces of burning bark fell off and started the ground on fire.
Once the fire fighters arrived, they had the fire out in seconds. They doused the flames, soaked the surrounding area, and used a chainsaw to cut down the tree, which they dragged out into the road. I stayed long enough to give my name and phone number to the crew chief.
A couple days later, a Chippewa County Sheriff’s deputy called and asked me some questions as he tried to determine what caused the fire.
My first thought was that someone had snuffed out a cigarette in the hole instead of throwing it on the ground. Someone was leaving the trailhead just as I arrived. But the sheriff’s deputy said no cigarette butt was found in the tree, and they hadn’t found anything else that might have started the fire.
Friends who are foresters suggested the fire may have been started by a lightning strike. Apparently, those things can smolder for days. To my knowledge, there hadn’t been a lightning storm in the area in the days before this incident; however, there was a fire about a mile away the day before. It was caused by wind knocking down a power line. Could an ember have been carried by the wind for that distance? What are the odds of it landing in a woodpecker hole in that dead tree?
What’s for certain is that if I hadn’t show up when I had, the fire could have spread rapidly in that wind. And just as weird as the rest of the story is the fact that I had intended to hike that spot shortly after daylight, but due to a number of distractions that seem to plague my life daily, I didn’t show up until nearly noon. I almost didn’t go at all!
I’m glad I did.