The 2012 wildfire season broke many Michigan and national records

The nation saw record drought conditions, high temperatures, devastating hurricanes and wildfires this past year. Michigan was not exempt from many of these disturbing trends.

The Michigan 2012 wildfire season has come to a close with final figures posted on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) website. They report battling 495 wildfires during 2012 versus the 199 wildfires experienced in 2011. Of the 495 wildfires, 381 occurred in the Lower Peninsula while 114 were situated in the Upper Peninsula. Statewide, 23,813 total acres burned. The Lower Peninsula, while battling the majority of wildfires, saw 2,282.6 acres destroyed while the Upper Peninsula had 21,530.26 acres devastated by wildfire.

In Michigan, unlike in the western states, the majority of wildfires are generally caused by human behavior rather than lightning. Often, people are not careful enough when burning trash and brush, having a campfire or using fireworks. Interestingly enough, the largest Michigan wildfire of 2012 was caused by lightning. The Duck Lake Fire in the Upper Peninsula’s Luce County began May 24 due to a lightning strike and took three weeks to be considered completely controlled. With 21,069 acres destroyed, the Duck Lake Fire is the third largest in Michigan history bumping the 2007 Sleeper Lake Fire at 20,000 acres into fourth place. Only the 1976 Seney Fire at 72,000 acres and the 1980 Mack Lake Fire at 25,000 acres have been larger.

Clearly, with two of the largest wildfire in Michigan history occurring during the last five years, this is not a problem we can attribute to the past. Despite having modern firefighting equipment, a vast array of technology and  the latest research and well-though out approaches to fighting wildfires, not only Michigan, but the entire nation continues to experience an increase in the size and intensity of wildfires.

While some states such as Michigan saw an increase in number of wildfires during 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) the total number of significant wildfires was lower nationally than usual. Their report indicates that this situation resulted in the average fire size during 2012 being larger than usual. The total area burned in 2012 was over 9.1 million acres, 30 percent more than in an average year. This is the third highest total since NIFC began keeping records in 1960.To put this amount of acreage in perspective, the area it represents is slightly larger than the entire state of New Jersey. By all indications, these trends are not likely to diminish in the future.

A 2012 report by Climate Central focusing on 11 western states offers several reasons why global warming increases the risk of wildfire. The report, published in September, states that the wildfire season in those states is approximately 75 days longer than in the 1970’s, the number of fires larger than 1,000 acres has increased significantly in 10 of the 11 states since 1970, and less available moisture exists during the fire season due to mountain snowpack melting earlier and global warming increasing evapotranspiration .

Other recent news articles suggest that the extreme weather being experienced worldwide during 2012 may be linked to climate change. An Associated Press (AP) post that appeared in the Traverse City Record Eagle on December 8 states that many cities in the Midwest were setting records for the number of days without snow. The article notes that according to the National Weather Service, on December 6, Des Moines, Iowa surpassed a record set in 1889 when it hit its 277th consecutive day without measurable snowfall.

These weather trends have widespread economic implications for agriculture and tourism as well as threatening valuable natural resources including our forests.

Though the 2012 wildfire season is essentially over in Michigan and most of the nation, a white Christmas may just be a wishful dream for many this year and in years to come.

To learn more about measures you can take to protect your home and property from damage or destruction should a wildfire occur in your area, visit the Michigan State University Extension Firewise website. The site offers a variety of resources as well as contact information for Extension staff who can provide Firewise programs and educational materials.

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