Homeowner recalls escape from N. Michigan forest fire PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Written by JOHN FLESHER,AP Environmental Writer   
Friday, 21 May 2010 07:13

 

SOUTH BRANCH TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Glenn King was cleaning his basement when sheriff's deputies pounded on the front door, warning that a wildfire was bearing down on his frame house in the northern Michigan backwoods.

"They told me to evacuate," King said. "In three minutes."

The 62-year-old retiree quickly loaded family portraits, irreplaceable mementos and Paco, his red Labrador, into his Jeep and raced down an unpaved route toward a state highway. It was midafternoon Tuesday, but the smoke became so thick he could barely see.

"You could hear the fire roaring like a train," King said.

Authorities said 12 homes were destroyed and two damaged by the inferno that broke out Tuesday and blasted across jack pine forests in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula after a local resident lost control of a brush fire.

The fire, about 60 miles east of Traverse City, covered roughly 8,800 acres. The fire was considered 80 percent contained, or secure enough that flames were unlikely to jump the line dug around the perimeter.

King escaped unscathed Tuesday — and, miraculously, so did the frame house he shares with wife Lorelei King, who wasn't home at the time. But the flames consumed two nearby sheds and all the contents, including lawn mowers, a snowblower and power tools. Most of their 2 acres of woodlands were charred black.

"We are very, very blessed," Lorelei King, 58, said, recalling the ordeal Thursday at a church serving as a Red Cross shelter. Still, she said it had been a shock that morning when police escorted them to their scorched property to retrieve medicines and clothes.

"It's just so surreal to drive down there," she said. "This is our retirement dream home, and we invested everything in it."

The couple said they would stay put and rebuild their ruined sheds.

A second fire that broke out Tuesday at the Camp Grayling National Guard complex, about 25 miles west of the larger blaze, was extinguished, spokeswoman Maj. Dawn Dancer said. It started as an intentional burn to clear firing ranges but blew out of control and ended up consuming 1,200 acres, mostly on the military installation, although four homes on adjacent private land were lost.

About 150 crew members from the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the U.S. Forest Service and local fire departments were trying to rein in the blaze. Weather prospects were ominous as wind gusts up to 25 mph were expected Friday.

An undetermined number of homes were evacuated, and the order remained in effect for most of them.

Authorities have not released the name of the man who started the fire. He had received a burning permit that morning from the state agency, which stopped issuing them later as temperatures soared and winds picked up.

Police are investigating, said Carol Nilsson, spokeswoman for the Huron-Manistee National Forest, where much of the damage occurred.

The fire was about 6.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. The area consists largely of state and federal land although private lots and houses are scattered across the lightly developed region. It's a haven for anglers who pursue trout in the nearby Au Sable River, as well as deer hunters, hikers and campers.

But it's long been fire-prone. Jack pines, the predominant tree variety, burn rapidly and regenerate after the heat pops open their cones and spread seed. One of the largest blazes in the Huron-Manistee forest destroyed 44 homes and killed a firefighter in 1980.

As more people build vacation and retirement homes in the area, rangers urge precautions, such as clearing trees near the dwellings, Nilsson said. But not everyone heeds the advice.

"Some of them say, 'I moved up north to be around trees and I'm not cutting mine down,'" Nilsson said.

 

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