By Marie Orttenburger
Illustrations by Spencer High

Most Americans fear fire.

The U.S. Forest Service ushered in a culture of fire suppression in the early 20th century. You would struggle to find an American today who hasn’t heard Smokey Bear’s plea, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” It is part of the longest-running public service announcement campaign in U.S. history.

The campaign is well intentioned, but it misses important nuances. And it has led to an over-correction in our relationship to fire.

Long before European settlers arrived, and even for a while after, fires regularly occurred in many American ecosystems. Ignited both by humans and lightning, fire periodically crept across the landscape. Plants and animals adapted to live with fire—some even came to depend on it.

Now, after 150 years of preventing and extinguishing the fires those plants and animals evolved to need, species and ecosystems are slowly burning out. Introducing fire back into the management of these landscapes is necessary to save these species and preserve biodiversity.

But doing so does not come without challenges.

This series explores those challenges in Michigan. The Great Lakes state is not the first one we think of when it comes to fire. It doesn’t host the vast holocausts now devastating western lands. But Michigan is home to many fire-adapted and fire-dependent ecosystems facing a different kind of fire-related destruction. They have shrunk to a tiny fraction of their original footprint.

The series highlights how researchers and land managers shape how fire is applied in Michigan’s natural lands.

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“If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”

– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek