The Great Seney Fire by Gregory M. Lusk

The cover of the great seney fire.Nobody predicted that 2023 would be the “year of the wildfire”. Where I live most of the year in downstate Michigan, we were inundated by the smoke from Canadian wildfires in early Summer 2023. As a result of this conflagration, my wife and I both woke up coughing and with sore throats on several nights. Little did we know that a catastrophic blaze would light up in Lahaina, Hawaii a month later. We had just visited our relatives down there in December 2022 and the scenes of nightmarish devastation were hard to reconcile with this one-time tropical paradise. So what I’m saying is, wildfires all of sudden matter to everyone no matter where you live in the USA—from Alaska to Hawaii and continental states too. So it was with great interest when Greg Lusk’s encyclopedic record “The Great Seney Fire: A History of the Walsh Ditch Fire of 1976” landed on my desk the same week of the Lahaina disaster.

Although I should be old enough to remember the Seney Fire, I was only 12 years old at the time and all I remember of that year was the Bicentennial celebration fever that was sweeping the USA. Specifically, I recall being excited to read Isaac Asimov’s novella “The Bicentennial Man” about a robot who lives to the age of 200. But I digress. Greg Lusk is a native Yooper who had a front-row seat for the Seney Fire. Specifically, he left his job as a fire specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to become the Assistant Fire Boss for the State’s suppression of the Seney Fire. As such, Lusk would need to call on both his experience as seasoned veteran of Vietnam as a platoon leader as well as his degree in forestry from Michigan Tech to succeed. An inveterate and meticulous recordkeeper, he unearthed his many boxes of official and unofficial documentation after his retirement to write “The Great Seney Fire”.

I can only describe as eerie the sensation of reading Lusk’s story of a nearly 50 year-old-fire while similar events unveiled day-by-day in Hawaii as I read on. One of these he describes in detail is how a fire can burn underground following tree roots like a long dynamite fuse and emerge on the other side of the fire suppression line. Literally, the next day a photographer reported seeing this phenomenon in Lahaina. I am generally not a person to dog-ear pages, but as I read about the scale of firefighting, possible mismanagement by the Seney Wildlife Sanctuary, and the heroics of men and their machines I was marking page-after-page! Today, I can watch the progress of wildfires on the NASA FIRMS page (Fire Information Resource Management System) with fresh satellite imagery on my laptop. This was not the case in 1976 where the only communication was old-school police radios and visuals were just photographs snapped from aerial surveys.

Lusk leads off with a complete “natural history” starting millions of years ago before the U.P. itself was even a land mass! This continues on as the ever-changing parade of flora and fauna cross the U.P. and leave their mark. In 1908, land speculators purchased the Seney marsh from Cleveland Cliffs in hopes of selling it on as arable farmland. To that end, they dug the Walsh Ditch, a 16-mile-long trench between M-28 draining into the Manistique River. The main problem being that, although the soil was rich, it would simply not hold water and after Spring rains the soil would quickly dry up. Such a summer drought was well underway in 1976 when the great fire broke out. A normal summer in the central U.P. would see 13 inches of rain in the summer but only 5 inches had fallen and August of that year saw barely ½ inch of that total.

As in many large-scale disasters, a series of small errors mounted to create a fire that consumed 80,000 acres or about 100 square miles. First off, was a one-acre test burn by the National Fish & Wildlife Service (F&WS) on July 7th 1976 that they assumed burned out—but burned on. On July 30th, a lightning strike ignited marsh grass in an inaccessible area—3 miles from the nearest road. The next day, a regularly DNR flyover spotted the fire and quickly informed the Seney Refuge Manager of the problem. He attempted to walk into the area but the terrain was too rough. Still, they denied the DNR access by motorized vehicles on the basis that it was a wilderness refuge and should not have vehicles in it. This jurisdictional dispute raged on with the DNR being helpless to do anything until the fire left federal lands. The fire situation quickly snowballed and crews were brought in from 29 states to help. At one point, ten firetrucks were on continuous patrol up and down M-28 to prevent the burn from jumping the road. Before it was all over, more than one million dollars was spent on the effort (equivalent to $40 million in today’s economy accounting for inflation). More than 1000 men and 20 aircraft of all types would be employed in the effort to fight this pernicious blaze. There’s a lot more to the story than I can possibly put down in this review, but if you’re like me you’ll find it jaw-dropping.

Additional features of the book, beyond a chronology, are an in-depth look at fire danger metrics and how they have evolved over the years. Similarly, how command-and-control architectures changed as a result of this fire. The Great Seney Fire is packed with more than a hundred illustrations, many of them in full color, depicting the people, places, and firefighting equipment deployed. As a bonus feature, it includes diaries of some of the hotspot jumpers brought in from California on two-week shifts (that sometimes turned into much longer). I highly recommend The Great Seney Fire: A History of the Walsh Ditch Fire of 1976 for anyone who may care how climate change has transformed the tranquil forests into a volatile tinderbox. Greg Lusk’s book should be required reading in any forestry program and an essential Michigan history reference for every library in our state.

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