FIRE history, northern Great Lakes

In the northwest portion of Lake Superior is a chunk of land of about 132,000 acres that is both a geographic novelty and an International Biosphere Reserve. The Isle Royale National Park is 56 miles off Michigan’s shore and 18 miles from Minnesota’s mainland. Congress designated the 50-mile-long island as a national park in 1931, but even before that it was apparent the island’s boreal forests had a close history with fire.

2021 Horne Fire

“Official fire record keeping began in 1847, when the first General Land Office survey of Isle Royale was conducted,” according to the park’s website. “These records show 31 fires between 1847 and 1898. Data suggests fire was more frequent and/or severe in the boreal forest of the island’s northeast end, compared with the northern hardwoods of the southwest end.”

The island’s dense concentration of high-flammability trees, e.g. balsam fir, black spruce, and jack pine, heightened the risk of wildfires igniting when lightning struck. A zoologist in 1931 recognized the important role fire played in the island’s unique ecosystem, but his ideas were discarded in favor of the system-wide preference toward fire suppression.

flammable species on Isle Royale
Flammable species on Isle Royale

“In planning for improvements and facilities on Isle Royale, the National Park Service consulted with University of Michigan Zoologist Adolph Murie,” the park said. “Murie visited Isle Royale in June 1935 and recommended that no new trails be cleared by the CCC and all efforts be made to ‘guard against any sort of development which will reduce space or increase travel.’ He also recommended that forest fires be allowed to occur on Isle Royale, but this idea was rejected, and instead, an aggressive anti-forest-fire point of view was adopted.”

Isle Royale map

Officials would soon come to regret dismissing Murie’s ideas. Park historians describe the summer of 1936 as hot and dry. Hundreds of CCC enrollees arrived at the heavily logged and mined island to establish the park. On July 25, a fire started near the Consolidated Paper Company and, while a cause was never determined, the “Fire of 1936” would have the most profound effect on the natural and human history of Isle Royale compared with any other historical event.

Around 200 CCC members and loggers tried in vain to fight the fire as it grew from 200 to 5,000 acres over 10 days. The fire was reported as contained on August 4, but two spot fires that had ignited on August 2 would become much larger problems. By August 18, the three fires burned 27,000 acres before they were officially declared out after heavy rainfall.

Multiple factors contributed to the high number of acres burned in the fire, park historians said. The island’s ground was, at the time, mostly covered in highly flammable mosses. In-fighting between the park system and CCC members, including a short CCC strike when tobacco supplies ran out, likely made matters worse.

SEAT on the Horne FireThe island wouldn’t see significant wildfires again until the 2021 Horne Fire and the 2022 Mount Franklin Fire, which burned 335 acres and 6 acres respectively. In the fires’ wake, scientists and researchers hope to use the burned areas to learn more about the dynamics between fire and the island’s life.

“The area may look different, but wildfire is an agent of necessary change,” the park said. “At the site of the Horne Fire, Isle Royale ecologists now have a living laboratory, and these researchers can begin to study the relationships between fire, living things, and an island environment.”


::: more about fire ecology research on the island :::



Bill reintroduced to create 21st Century Conservation Corps to improve resiliency to wildfire

Sponsored by two Senators and four Representatives

154th Company, Civilian Conservation Corps, Eagle Lake Camp NP-1-Me. Bar harbor Maine, February, 1940.

Two Oregon Senators are going to reintroduce a bill that would put people to work in the woods, helping to restore public lands and provide jobs. The 21st Century Conservation Corps Act brought forward by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, would provide funds to support a natural resource management and conservation workforce and bolster wildfire prevention and preparedness.

Of course an earlier Conservation Corps with some similar goals was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) 80 years ago. (More about the CCC later in this article.)

According to Senator Wyden:

Rural communities are facing two big challenges: struggling economies and continued wildfire threats. By investing in a 21st century workforce, this bill will put people to work to tackle the climate emergency, restore our public lands and reduce wildfire risks. The bottom line, creating new jobs and supporting our public lands go hand in hand.


Some of the provisions in the legislation would actually accomplish some meaningful things out on the ground that could make a difference:

  • Establishes a $9 billion fund for qualified land and conservation corps to increase job training and hiring specifically for jobs in the woods, helping to restore public lands and provide jobs in a time of need.
  • Provides an additional $3.5 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and $2 billion for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to support science-based projects aimed at improving forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
  • Establishes a $2 billion fund to provide economic relief for outfitters and guides holding U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior special use permits.
  • Provides $2 billion for the National Fire Capacity program, which helps the Forest Service implement FireWise, to prevent, mitigate, and respond to wildfire around homes and businesses on private land.
  • Provides $2 billion for the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to improve resiliency for communities impacted by wildfire.
  • Provides $6 billion for U.S. Forest Service, $6 billion for the National Park Service, and $2 billion for the Bureau of Land Management maintenance accounts to create jobs, reduce the maintenance backlog, and expand access to recreation.
  • Provides $3.5 billion for reforestation projects on a combination of federal, state, local, tribal and NGO lands, with over one hundred million trees to be planted in urban areas across America by 2030.
  • Increases access to public lands through expanding and investing in programs like Every Kid Outdoors and the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership.

A nine-page document has more details about the bill.

Legislation with the same title was first introduced in the 2017-2018 Congress by Senator John McCain with strong bipartisan support, and a second time in the 2019-2020 Congress by Senator Ron Wyden. Neither was brought to a vote in the full Senate. It is possible that with the new administration and a new Congress the bill will have a slightly better chance of passage. So far, all six of the co-sponsors are of the same party, Democratic.

National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020

A few of the provisions in the bill are similar to our recommendations made in the analysis of the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, Senate Bill 4625, which was introduced September 17, 2020 by Senator Ron Wyden and died in the last Congress. It would have helped address the workforce capacity issue by appropriating $300 million for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to plan, prepare, and conduct controlled burns on federal, state, and private lands.

At the time I made some suggestions that could be considered for funding along with an enhanced prescribed fire program:

  • Provide grants to homeowners that are in areas with high risk from wildland fires. Pay a portion of the costs of improvements or retrofits to structures and the nearby vegetation to make the property more fire resistant. This could include the cost of removing some of the trees in order to have the crowns at least 18 feet apart if they are within 30 feet of the structures — many homeowners can’t afford the cost of complete tree removal.
  • Cities and counties could establish systems and procedures for property owners to easily dispose of the vegetation and debris they remove.
  • Hire crews that can physically help property owners reduce the fuels near their homes when it would be difficult for them to do it themselves.
  • Provide grants to cities and counties to improve evacuation capability and planning, to create community safety zones for sheltering as a fire approaches, and to build or improve emergency water supplies to be used by firefighters.

Our article “Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities” has even more ideas.


The 21st Century Conservation Corps has some of the same goals as the Civilian Conservation Corps which between 1933 and 1942 employed young men across the United States who had trouble finding employment during the Great Depression. Through the course of its nine years in operation, three million participated in the CCC, which provided them with shelter, clothing, and food, together with a monthly wage that is equivalent to about $600 today. Enrollment peaked at the end of 1935, when there were 500,000 men in 2,600 camps with operations in every state.

The program closed in 1942 with World War II raging. The military reluctantly helped run the program but when the draft began in 1940, the policy was to make CCC alumni corporals and sergeants. Through the CCC, the regular army could assess the leadership performance of both regular and reserve officers.

Many of the projects the CCC accomplished still exist today. Their work included:

  1. Structural improvements: bridges, fire lookout towers, service buildings;
  2. Transportation: truck trails, minor roads, foot trails and airfields;
  3. Erosion control: check dams, terracing, and vegetable covering;
  4. Flood control: irrigation, drainage, dams, ditching, channel work, riprapping;
  5. Forest culture: tree planting, fire prevention, fire pre-suppression, firefighting, insect and disease control;
  6. Landscape and recreation: public camp and picnic ground development, lake and pond site clearing and development;
  7. Range: stock driveways, elimination of predatory animals;
  8. Wildlife: stream improvement, fish stocking, food and cover planting;
  9. Miscellaneous: emergency work, surveys, mosquito control.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.