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Sleeper Lake’s Wake-Up Call

September 12, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gina Haman/Superiorsights.com
  Newberry residents were very grateful to the firefighters who protected their town from the Sleeper Lake fire.

In early August, it was no secret that drought conditions had rendered the Upper Peninsula "over ripe" for a serious forest fire, according to Mary Dettloff, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources. And yet when lightening struck deep in Lake Superior State Forest on August 2, setting thousands of acres ablaze, the number of DNR firefighters was at a historic low and the agency’s budget was nearly exhausted.

Budget cuts had prevented the replacement of retiring officers, leaving the DNR with just 81 firefighters when, under normal circumstances, it should have had at least 100, according to Ms. Dettloff. The fire, which is now 95 percent contained, has consumed more than 18,000 acres of forest in Luce County and cost the state $6 million to extinguish.

After the fire had burned just a few days, it was apparent that the DNR would be unable to handle the blaze by itself. Fortunately, because of a compact among four neighboring states and two Canadian provinces, Michigan was able to bring in personnel and equipment from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario. The state also "drafted" personnel from other Michigan DNR divisions, including its fisheries, wildlife, and parks and recreation divisions, as well as from the Michigan National Guard.

And although the Sleeper Lake Fire, the third largest in state history, would no doubt have required outside assistance even if the DNR’s budget and staffing had been healthy, the shortfalls did disrupt normal department operations, slowed the Sleeper Lake response, and interfered with efforts to suppress other existing fires.

"Had we had more fire officers, we may not have had to pull quite as many from other divisions," said Les Homan, chief information officer for the fire. "What we had to do was lose some productivity in other places in order to make up for the short fall."

Many of the officers from other divisions, like parks and recreation, had to travel long distances and undergo fire suppression training before joining the fray, leading to delays, according to Homan:"You have to get the resources from somewhere and if we have them on staff, they can respond quickly. If you have to get them from elsewhere, that delays some response."

Making matters worse was the fact that, due to extremely dry conditions, there were 16 smaller fires in the U. P. that month. With attention focused on the major fire, there were not enough resources to dedicate towards the other blazes.

"We were running skeleton crews for other fires," Ms. Dettloff said. "One or two more guys on these crews would have made us breathe a lot of easier."

Although the DNR does receive money from the state’s general fund for fire suppression, appropriations have dwindled significantly in recent years. In FY 2001, the DNR received $6.67 million from the general fund for fire suppression. By FY 2007, the sum had dropped by more than one third, to $4.04 million, according to Sharon Schafer, the DNR’s chief budget officer.

These general fund cuts have forced the DNR to depend heavily on money from state timber sales. But, according to Ms. Dettloff, the timber market has all but dried up in the state, resulting in depressed sales, unharvested trees, and paper plant closures.

And while the massive Sleeper Lake Fire proved particularly expensive, funding shortfalls are not a new phenomenon for the DNR, which has had to request significant supplemental fire suppression funding from the Legislature for three consecutive years. "Almost every year we’ve had to go to the Legislature with our hat in our hand to ask for supplemental funding for fire suppression," Ms. Dettloff pointed out.

Citizens Step Up
Whether such cuts reflect the public’s priorities when it comes to protecting the state’s natural wonders is highly debatable. During the Sleeper Lake fire, for example, local citizens, businesses, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army made immense contributions to fire suppression efforts, which saved the state a significant chunk of change. Individuals, businesses, and organizations donated food, money, supplies, and time.

"It was just an amazing kind of a thing," said Mr. Homan. "There were lots of donations from local folks."

Some local citizens did laundry for fire fighters, returning the clean clothes with notes, warmly thanking the officers for their hard work. One anonymous donor even sent a truck full of Gatorade.

Mr. Homan said that the DNR did not pay for much in terms of meals and personal care products. The Red Cross, in conjunction with local grocers and other merchants who donated to the effort, established a food and general supplies store near the site, which firefighters could patronize for free morning, noon and night.

"Any firefighter could walk in and take whatever they wanted," Mr. Homan said.

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