Tree-ring research illuminates early fire history of Lower Michigan

By Marie Orttenburger

Illustrations by Spencer High

On a warm day in May, dendrochronologists Michael Stambaugh and Daniel Dey visit Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to collect samples of red pine stumps to learn about fire. 

They’ve traveled to a site just west of Wellston—a town whose own website warns that if you blink while driving down M-55, you might just miss it. The small unincorporated community’s point of pride is its location at the heart of the Manistee National Forest and proximity to the Manistee, Pine and Pere Marquette rivers, where anglers flock to fish for trout.

A turn down a sandy two-track leads into a sun-dappled forest where Stambaugh and Dey have parked their rented SUV. The research site is densely packed with towering red pines—their distribution betraying the mechanical, uniform way the Civilian Conservation Corps planted them after the U.S. Forest Service acquired the land in 1938. The nearly homogenous forest emits a pinkish glow thanks to the ruddy bark of the pines. Birds sing in the overstory, butterflies flutter along the forest floor. Most of the standing trees are likely less than 100 years old.

Stambaugh and Dey observe the rings on a sawn red pine snag in the Manistee National Forest. Image: Marie Orttenburger

“We might look at this forest today and think ‘Oh, well it’s always looked like this,’” Stambaugh said. “Well, no, actually this is a planted forest. Then you see historical pictures, when everything was cut. What was it before that?”

That question can be answered, in part, thanks to General Land Office surveys conducted around 1800. Before it was logged, this research site was a mix of red pine-white pine forest, cedar swamp and white pine-mixed hardwood forest, according to a map put together by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

To go back further in time, researchers depend in part on nature’s record keepers: trees, soil, lake core sediment samples. These resources help answer questions about the composition of Michigan’s ecosystems before a deluge of European settlers arrived and clearcut the state’s ancient forests and turned its prairies into farm fields. This knowledge could help today’s land managers understand what they need to do to restore the land’s health and biodiversity.

Some of the answers may yet linger in this heavily altered forest.

. . .

The Manistee National Forest was created from tax-forfeited and purchased lands that European settlers logged and then found unsuitable for agriculture. All that was left on the land was slash—woody debris that readily burned—and intense wildfires repeatedly took out any new growth that might have emerged. Trees didn’t regrow for decades following the land’s exploitation. Efforts by the Civilian Conservation Corps were ultimately what reforested the landscape. The red pines they methodically planted in straight rows still grow tall today and can be seen in every one of Michigan’s national forests.

Stambaugh, Dey and their colleagues Richard Guyette and Joe Marschall are using dendrochronology—or tree-ring dating—to understand the Manistee National Forest’s historical fire regimes, or how frequently and intensely fires used to occur. To do this, they collect red pine samples—but not from those trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Training an eye along the forest floor at the Wellston research site reveals a few scattered “snags” between the rows of pines. These are the remains of long-dead, uncut trees—ones that died before the loggers arrived and were left to continue decaying. 

“It’s like the prior forest is still here as a ghost, in some ways,” Stambaugh said.

These snags are what Stambaugh and Dey are searching for. They hold the most promise for data that spans far enough back in time to tell them something about the area’s early fire history. At a nearby site, Guyette found snags with fire scar dates as far back as 1717.

The fire scars visible on the outside of this red pine snag in the Manistee National Forest are referred to as a “cat face.” Image: Marie Orttenburger

Hard pines, like red pine, are particularly well-suited to recording fire. These trees possess a unique defense mechanism: they produce resin in response to certain stressors. When a fire passes by the base of the tree, a heat vortex forms on the side toward which the fire is heading. Like a rock in a river with an eddy behind it, the passing flame flares up in that vortex and scars the tree. For other species, the scar would leave the tree vulnerable to infection by fungi, which would rot the wood and erase the data. Red pines instead secrete a resin that seals the wound and preserves the wood. The tree continues growing around the scar, the succeeding rings creating a pattern that scallops with each injury. The result is a record of every time a fire burned hot enough to damage the tree.

There are enough snags that Stambaugh posits that a “stand-replacing” fire—a high-intensity fire killing all or most of the trees in a given area—took out these trees. The accuracy of his hypothesis will be clarified once all of the samples are returned to the Missouri Tree-Ring Laboratory at the University of Missouri in Columbia and their rings are measured against master tree-ring chronologies. The relative sizes of the rings will illuminate where on history’s timeline those trees spent their lifetimes, as well as assign a year to every fire scar in a given sample.

Not every snag meets the criteria needed to warrant its collection. These trees have been decaying for decades—many are missing key parts of the timeline. Stambaugh passes by one snag, about three feet high, and peers inside. The center is completely rotted out. 

“It’s probably one in 20 that we can actually get to the information,” Stambaugh said. “What’s gone is the earlier history, and that’s the sweet stuff.”

Once the researchers find a snag that appears to still have its integrity, Stambaugh revs up the chainsaw. He carefully saws several inches above the base of the snag, and then brushes away the sawdust to get an initial look at what its rings show. The roar of the motor quiets and an aromatic mix of chainsaw exhaust and pine sap lingers in the air. Stambaugh wraps duct tape around the perimeter of the stump to keep it together, then saws a few inches further down to extract the cross section.

Stambaugh chainsaws a red pine snag to collect a sample. Image: Marie Orttenburger

“We just try to take them apart slowly because they’re kind of fragile,” Stambaugh said. “We treat them as artifacts.”

Dey is the scribe of the duo, and in large black permanent marker he denotes details about the sample right on the stump: the date, the site name and sample number, the north- and south-facing sides, how far above the ground the sample was positioned and the degree of slope, if any. When the samples return to the lab, those analyzing them will know exactly how they sat on the land.

. . .

Fire used to be a much more common occurrence in many of North America’s ecosystems. Set aflame by either lightning or people, prairies, savannas, forests and even wetlands burned with varying degrees of intensity for millennia. In the last century and a half, however, Americans have adopted a culture of fire suppression—a mindset instilled with the establishment of the Forest Service to protect valuable timber and the cities and homes that developed with an exploding population. Now, ecosystems that used to burn every couple of years haven’t seen a spark in decades, and that has dramatically changed the way they look and function.

“There was a lot, a lot of fire—very frequent fire—in almost all systems. And we’ve lost that,” said Jack McGowan-Stinski, program manager for the Lake States Fire Consortium.“It’s a combination of the typical fire suppression that we think of, where when a fire started, it was put out. It’s a lot more than that. It’s also lack of ignition, and it’s cultural suppression, because Indigenous peoples used fires, it was one of the tools they had, and they used it very actively.”

Fire used to be a much more common occurrence in many of North America’s ecosystems. Set aflame by either lightning or people, prairies, savannas, forests and even wetlands burned with varying degrees of intensity for millennia. In the last century and a half, however, Americans have adopted a culture of fire suppression—a mindset instilled with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service to protect valuable timber and the cities and homes that developed with an exploding population. Now, ecosystems that used to burn every couple of years haven’t seen a spark in decades, and that has dramatically changed the way they look and function.

In Michigan, areas that used to be open prairie or park-like savannas are now densely forested, dramatically shrinking the living space for the thousands of plant, insect, bird and wildlife species that depend on open habitat types. Over time, the systems experience “mesophication”—a transition from a habitat of drier conditions, filled with more flammable fuels and tindery plants that carried fire to one that is moist and woody, more fire resistant, further precluding fire to the detriment of fire-adapted and fire-dependent species like wild lowbush blueberry and white oak.

Brian Stearns, an assistant fire management officer for the Forest Service working in the Huron-Manistee National Forests, has seen the shift happening during his tenure.

“Especially in the last 20 years, I feel like I’ve noticed the effects that that’s starting to have on the landscape, as far as mesophication, woody encroachment. We’re fighting harder to keep prairie and savanna systems open.”

Knowing where and how fire occurred in the past can help managers like Stearns better understand how best to apply prescribed fire—a kind of controlled fire administered by trained individuals—to restore those ecosystems. The information gleaned from the samples collected in the Manistee National Forest could shape how the Forest Service manages the forest today and in the future. Depending on the goals of a particular manager, the data can help inform which species should be planted, how frequently they should be managed with prescribed fire, how much risk there is for wildfire and how changes in climate might influence wildfire in the future.

In the Forest Service, every proposed burn must go through a process to ensure it meets the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act. Stearns uses dendrochronology research alongside other historical information to support the application of prescribed fire on certain parcels.

“I use that information to justify what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s a continuation of something that has probably occurred over the last 9,000 years.”

Members of the Lake States Fire Consortium are also working to synthesize regional fire history research into a handbook for land managers so they can apply the research in their planning.

. . .

The samples that Stambaugh and Dey collect are artifacts—of both ecology and culture. The information they contain will not only help land managers understand where to apply fire today, but they also fill in blanks in the historical record of people and their influence on the landscape before the earliest European settlers arrived. Beyond its applications in the Forest Service’s management of the Manistee National Forest, the data collected there will also contribute to a growing collection of tree-ring data spanning North America. On this scale, they can build a “pyrogeography” and begin to understand how people, climate and topography drove historical fire regimes.

Injuries caused by fire are recorded in the rings of red pines. Image: Spencer High

Just as this research is being used to inform how land managers can best care for ecosystems, it could likewise be used to add details to existing knowledge of how Native Americans lived on the land. This connection is not lost on researcher Lane Johnson, who has worked on similar fire-scar dendrochronology studies in Minnesota.

“The colleagues that I’ve been working with, Evan Larson and Kurt Kipfmueller, we’ve been having conversations with tribal members that have ancestral ties to the places where we’ve been collecting fire history data,” Johnson said. “When we collect tree ring records of fire, it tells us the what, where and when in regard to fire history, but it doesn’t tell us the why. By engaging with tribal communities and tapping into their knowledge of place, their deep understanding of places they’ve been in for a long time, we can have this deeper and more nuanced understanding about the importance of fire in our landscapes over time.”

These collaborations can help give context to millennia of anthropogenic fire—but there is a limit on how much knowledge can be gleaned. A violent history of settlers forcing Native Americans to reservations has left many tribes disconnected from their ancestral lands and with a fragmented, albeit persistent, memory of how their ancestors specifically interacted with them.

“A lot of the very place-based specific knowledge, of traditional fire use, is just gone,” Johnson said. “We’re at this point where we’re needing to rebuild that knowledge. That can be done really collaboratively, and I think that’s another application of the tree-ring data.”

In Shelbyville, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians, or Gun Lake Tribe, has incorporated prescribed burning into its management of the lands it owns to restore prairie and pollinator habitat as well as a cultural connection to fire.

Before and after: A patch of mowed lawn where the Gun Lake Tribe employed prescribed fire to create native prairie and pollinator habitat. Images: Gun Lake Tribe

The Potawatomi are one of the tribes associated with the Three Fires Confederacy, along with the Ojibwe and the Odawa. The Anishinaabe alliance assigns each member tribe a role: the Ojibwe are the “keepers of the faith,” the Odawa the “keepers of trade” and the Potawatomi are the “keepers of the fire.”

“It’s really, really important—something that the Tribe as a whole, no matter which community you come from in the Potawatomi Nation, Potawatomi people really take that responsibility to heart and hold it in high regard,” said James “Bud” Day, language and culture director for the Gun Lake Tribe. 

Day cited Tribal Elder Frank Barker as a source of much of his understanding of the Potawatomi’s relationship with fire. Historically, the Potawatomi used fire to cultivate their food resources, employing it to encourage the propagation of berries or attract wild game to an area for easy hunting. Today, the Gun Lake Tribe uses fire because it is an environmentally conscious way to support native plants and pollinators, prevent the spread of invasive species and preserve a cultural tradition. Though the locations of the lands the Tribe manages today aren’t where the Tribe would have historically burned—the Gun Lake area was a winter location for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish—connecting to the ways their ancestors interacted with and managed the landscape is important.

“A lot of our communities across this whole country are really grasping and really putting forth a very conscious effort to hit all of the ‘re’s’—and when I say ‘the re’s,’ I’m talking revitalization, restoration, resurgence, research, all of these different things of how we used to be,” Day said. “The more that we can recover and relearn—there’s a couple more ‘re’s’ for you—we can start to reuse those things and start to make them normal again.”

Johnson believes tree-ring research may be able to contribute to such efforts.

“(We can) link the place-based tree-ring records with the more general ideas about where and when and why people were burning, and for what resources. Suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, these are our opportunities in these landscapes to restore fire as a process—both ecological and cultural,’” he said.

Respectful collaboration will be key.

“How do we do that in a way that’s respectful and not appropriating Indigenous perspectives? How do we make sure we’re doing that in a unified way, where we’re inviting them to come and being a part of those conversations from planning to implementation to monitoring—so that it’s healing for those communities and us as settler colonists, to be better stewards of place and to be more respectful of the trauma that’s occurred in those communities for a long time?” Johnson said.

. . .

Once Stambaugh and Dey haul their equipment and samples they’ve collected back to their SUV, they move to a site closer to Cadillac in hopes of finding more. Everything they collect will be analyzed alongside samples Guyette collected at a nearby site in Wolf Lake five years prior. Together, the samples will start to tell a more comprehensive story of how frequently, and how intensely, fire historically burned in this part of lower Michigan.

Dey takes notes on a sample while Stambaugh duct tapes another. Image: Marie Orttenburger

The pair conclude their time at the Wellston research site with a final sample from an enormous, weathered snag that lays on its side. The tree was likely uprooted by settlers who cleared the land of its vegetation by dragging chains across it. A toppled tree decays more slowly than one with its roots in the ground, preserving important data.

“Little did they know when they were chaining that they were creating fire history,” Stambaugh said.

“Saving it for me and you,” Dey said.

Disclosure: The author is employed by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

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The prescription for Michigan: More fire

By Marie Orttenburger

Illustrations by Spencer High

Some of Michigan’s native ecosystems can persist only if they are periodically engulfed in flames.

This is the case for the oak savanna, an open field interspersed with wide-growing oaks. Thanks to the spaced-out configuration of the trees, the understory of the savanna receives varying levels of sunlight—from pure sun, to dappled partial shade, to cool, full shade. Different plants thrive in different parts of the savanna, creating a biodiverse mosaic of flora that attracts a likewise diverse family of fauna.

Oak savannas occur on dry, sandy—or “xeric”—soils. Prairie grasses and wildflowers thrive in these soils, and along with the crispy dead leaves that fall from the oaks, they provide great conditions for fire. When a fire reaches an oak savanna, it slowly crawls through as it feeds on these fuels.

Many plants that do well in xeric conditions have adapted to thrive with periodic fire.

Oaks, for example, have adaptations at nearly every stage of their life cycle that help them survive when fires pass through. Their acorns germinate underground, protecting the delicate bud from the heat of fire on the surface. They prioritize root growth before stem growth, meaning that once the roots have developed enough, there’s a better chance the seedling could regrow after being topkilled by a fire. 

Fire also supports this kind of growth: To produce wide root systems, oak seedlings need ample sunlight. Fire keeps other trees and shrubs from casting shade on baby oaks. As adults, oaks have especially thick bark that better withstands fire, and when the tree is scarred by fire, it can compartmentalize the wound and prevent decay from spreading.

Oaks not only persist but thrive when fire happens somewhat frequently. By comparison, their mesophytic, or moisture-loving, counterparts, like beech and red maple, don’t stand a chance.

Oak acorn germination prioritizes root growth first, which gives oak seedlings an advantage when fire comes through. Image: Spencer High

But after 150 years of fire suppression in Michigan, mesophytic species have had plenty of time to take over. Now, oak populations are declining swiftly, and fire-dependent ecosystems have been reduced to a fraction of their original foothold in the state.

“When we look at, for example, our prairies, barrens and savanna systems and compare their current distribution to their historical distribution, they’ve dropped to less than .02% of their circa-1800 extent,” said Josh Cohen, the lead ecologist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). “With that drop in those fire-dependent systems you have a drop in the species that depend on them.”

Some of Michigan’s most familiar endangered species prefer the habitat provided by these systems: the Eastern box turtle, the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the Karner blue butterfly, to name a few. But without regular fire, these species have fewer and fewer places to live. This habitat loss has contributed to a great decline in Michigan’s biodiversity that is only becoming greater.

Volunteer prescribed burn crew member wields a rake and a water pump backpack—tools that ensure a burn conducted at The Highlands, a nature preserve in Grand Rapids, stays within its unit. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

Prescribed fire—a planned, controlled fire used to meet management objectives—can help restore these lost ecosystems—and maybe hope for the critters that are suffering in their absence.

. . .

Cohen co-authored a recently published assessment of the ecological need for prescribed fire in Michigan. Its conclusion: We need more, particularly in the southwest portion of the state, where prairie and savanna systems used to flourish.

Of the 441 vascular plants that MNFI tracks listed as threatened or endangered or of special concern, 100 of those are limited to prairie and savanna ecosystems and are concentrated in Southwest Michigan, Cohen said.

The model Cohen helped create integrates a suite of data to produce a “fire needs score” for specific forest stands on state land. A forest stand is a contiguous group of trees with enough shared characteristics to be a distinguishable unit.

What exactly does it mean for a forest stand today, after 150 years of fire suppression and a lot of landscape changes, to “need” fire?

“We use ‘need’ as a way of saying: ‘Is fire likely to occur given the biotic and abiotic factors that occur in a given place?’” Cohen said.

If, for example, a given stand has a southwest-facing slope and flatter terrain (abiotic factors), and is home to species like big bluestem, a tall prairie grass, or Karner blue butterfly (biotic factors), the fire needs score for that stand is higher. If the stand is home to ecosystems or species that are fire sensitive, like a cedar swamp or marbled salamander, then its fire needs score is lower. The model also accounts for complexities like the presence of fire-tolerant invasive species or rare species that are fire-sensitive but depend on fire-dependent habitat.

The fire needs scores for selected input variables and the total fire needs score for Allegan State Game Area. Source: Cohen, et al.

This information has great potential to help guide Michigan land managers in prioritizing where and how they apply prescribed fire and perhaps meet more of those fire needs.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Division sponsored MNFI’s creation of this model, and the assessment is focused on state land. MNFI has adapted the model to be used elsewhere in the state, with coarser, less-detailed data inputs.

“The question that was asked years ago was ‘How much (prescribed fire) is enough?’ The work MNFI did helped address that,” said Mark Sargent, the southwest regional supervisor for the Wildlife Division. “It’s way more than we can do. But we will use that information to help prioritize what we can do and where we’re going to do it on the landscape.”

The assessment’s call to action is clear, but much stands in the way of getting more fire on the ground. The stark disparity between the amount of fire that is needed and how much is applied may also highlight structural barriers within the organizations charged with caring for Michigan’s natural lands.

. . .

As it is, the DNR isn’t able to complete the burns it prescribes each year. Lack of funding and personnel are hurdles, and burn prescriptions can require precise weather conditions that limit the window of time within which a burn can be completed. A number of important stars have to align in order to set fire to a burn unit.

Sargent said his team usually only completes 20 to 30 of the 60 to 80 burns his team prescribes for his region each year.

“We have the need and the environmental priority of doing a lot more burning than we can conduct in a given year,” Sargent said. “Our capacity, both financial and as far as personnel, allows us to do a very small part of that.”

Ecological need, though important, isn’t the only force dictating where the DNR uses burns. Each of its divisions—Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, and Forest Resources—produces burn prescriptions for different reasons, from managing elk habitat, to protecting highly flammable jackpine stands and timber resources, to burning brush to clear out a historic racetrack at Fayette State Park. Every division sends its prescription proposals to the Forest Resources Division’s fire program, which is then tasked with implementing the burns.

Glenn Palmgren is a DNR fire management specialist.

“It’s my job as well as all of the rest of us in the fire program to take the proposals that are submitted to us and turn those into burn plans, where basically we determine what kind of burn is needed to meet the objectives that a land manager has for that particular piece of ground, and how to do that safely and with the right resources,” he said.

Native wildflowers packera and wild blue lupine photographed at Allegan State Game Area. Image: Robby Wrench

The Wildlife Division accounts for most of the fire prescriptions the DNR executes. The division gets much of its funding from hunting licenses and prioritizes supporting habitat for game species like elk, ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasant. Sometimes, using fire for wild game habitat helps restore and support native ecosystems, too.

“A lot of the work we’ve done in the last 100 years has benefited both game and non-game species,” Sargent said. “Allegan State Game Area is the motherload for the Karner blue butterfly. We might call it turkey habitat, we might call it Karner blue butterfly habitat, but it pretty much looks like the same thing.”

In other parts of the state where the DNR applies prescribed fire, there isn’t that same mutual benefit.

“There’s often a use of resources to promote warm season grass plantings in parts of the state where those systems didn’t historically occur,” Cohen said. “For example, the use of fire in the Thumb area—lots and lots of warm season grass plantings in areas that were historically beech-maple-hemlock forest.

“There’s a similar pattern of management in the Pigeon River country, where a lot of openings are maintained for elk. Historically elk did occur in Michigan, but the current herd is introduced. Part of the way resource managers maintain elk on that landscape is by managing these large wildlife openings that are geared for elk but not necessarily geared toward the promotion of fire-dependent ecosystems in those areas,” he said.

When the agency’s limited burning capacity is being used to meet these priorities, it detracts from the state’s land managers’ capacity to meet the ecological fire needs of Michigan’s native ecosystems.

. . .

In the U.S. Forest Service, timber priorities also stand in the way of applying burns where they might be needed. Brian Stearns, an assistant fire manager who works on fuels management for the Forest Service, uses prescribed fire to mitigate catastrophic wildfires and how it impacts communities at the “wildland-urban interface”—where nature meets neighborhoods. Proactive prescribed burning reduces the amount of stuff a wildfire might otherwise burn up. When a wildfire reaches a previously burned forest, it doesn’t burn as quickly or as intensely. Fire breaks—areas where fire fuel has been completely removed—can stop a wildfire in its tracks. Using fire this way protects buildings and important habitats.

In recent years, Stearns has found his unit’s objectives at odds with others within the Forest Service.

“Especially in the last five years, the timber target for timber production, lumber sales, has gone up. So they’re under pressure to get more board feet out the door. At the fuels program, we’re under more pressure to treat more acres to protect more property,” Stearns said.

But treating a forest with prescribed fire runs the risk of charring timber and diminishing its value.

“For us to treat something, it does potentially have an impact on timber sales, and both of our targets are going up,” Stearns said. “That’s a big area of friction that I see.”

. . .

Another major extinguisher of prescribed fire for both the DNR and the Forest Service: the same staff members who conduct prescribed burns are called on to suppress wildfires.

“For a lot of our fire staff, their primary funding for their position is based on wildfire protection. That’s a mission of the department—it’s a legislative obligation of the department to do forest fire protection,” Palmgren said. “When we get into high fire danger times, a lot of our staff are being pulled to do wildfire work. Because of that, they can’t do prescribed burning.”

When the same staff is forced to choose whether to stop an out-of-control fire that might endanger human lives or set a controlled one to help an endangered butterfly, the answer is obvious.

“Anybody in the DNR is going to say: ‘You need to go make sure you’re protecting people’s lives.’ Nobody’s going to argue with that,” Cohen said. “But maybe if you had a different structure, then you wouldn’t have that competition.”

More staff, and staff dedicated to prescribed fire, might solve this.

“Staffing is a big issue. Trying to have more staff from all divisions—from Parks, Wildlife, Forest Resources—more fire-line qualified staff available to do that would be great. I think that is what’s going to be necessary,” Palmgren said. 

Palmgren said that might require funding and staff that are dedicated to prescribed fire, so that wildfire suppression efforts aren’t competing with proactive, protective and restorative prescribed burning.

As climate change likely lengthens and intensifies the annual wildfire season in Michigan, this will only become more of a problem. The irony is that applying more prescribed fire would likely reduce the damage done by wildfires—even prevent it from spreading to some areas.

“By not applying fire now, we are doing a huge disservice to the resilience of our forests to face the fires that are going to increase in the future,” said Andy Vander Yacht, the chairperson of the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council.

. . .

Big agencies like the DNR and the Forest Service aren’t the only ones that can set flame to an overcrowded oak savanna. Smaller organizations like land trusts and independent contractors can also use fire to manage private lands. These groups face many of the same challenges: Limited funding, expensive equipment and finicky weather conditions can all prohibit prescribed fire.

But one challenge bears more weight for these groups. The number-one hurdle identified by members of the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council—a group established to “protect, conserve and expand the safe use of prescribed fire on the Michigan landscape”—was “liability, legislation and risk management.” The survey respondents included independent contractors, state and federal agency employees, nonprofit staff and others.

“It’s like bringing your child to the store: If that child breaks something, you’re liable for it,” Vander Yacht said. “You light the match, you’re responsible for that fire, whatever it does.” 

Michigan is a limited liability state, meaning that if an independent prescribed fire company started a fire that got out of control, it would have to be proven negligent to be successfully sued. Still, the risks loom large.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan has its own burn crew composed of staff and volunteers. When the organization’s staff and committees were exploring establishing the crew, liability was a major hurdle—rooted mostly in lack of clarity about what the organization’s insurance policy actually covered. Originally, they were told by their company that they would have to pay an extra $20,000 a year.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s prescribed burn crew burns a prairie restoration area at The Highlands, a Grand Rapids nature preserve, in spring 2021. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

“We were ready to pull the plug on it,” said Justin Heslinga, stewardship director at the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. “Then one day we got an email from the insurance company that said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re actually just covered under your general policy. No increase in premiums.’”

Other organizations and independent contractors are not so lucky. A major issue is that there isn’t an accessible certification program for those who would like to safely conduct burns.

“Everybody asks, ‘Are you certified to burn?’ No. Nobody is certified to burn. Nobody in Michigan is certified. There’s no mechanism to get certified. Even contractors who do this day in and day out, writing 100-acre burns, they have no more qualifications than you,” Heslinga said.

Me! A humble journalist!

The only certification that exists for prescribed burning is provided by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG)—and this is the standard preferred by the DNR and Forest Service. The NWCG training takes years to complete and requires on-the-ground experience on wildfires.

“For a private landowner or a small non-governmental agency that wants to use prescribed fire, there’s no way their staff can achieve those high fire training standards that often require working on some wildfires,” said Jack McGowan-Stinski, program manager for the Lake States Fire Science Consortium. “It’s just not easily achievable. It’s not in their mission, it’s not in their finances.”

In Michigan, legislation exists that could further safeguard prescribed burners from liability concerns. The rule, adopted in 2007, outlines a prescribed burn manager certification program to be administered by the DNR. If a trainee becomes certified, he or she would enjoy more protection under the law if a fire got out of hand. The only problem: the program is an unfunded mandate, and the DNR does not yet offer it.

“The primary reason the certified burn manager program has not been implemented yet is that there has been no funding available to administer this program,” Palmgren said in an email. “While the administrative rules are in place to provide the framework, there is no funding allocated for staff time to review applications, certify burners or create and put on the required course.”

Palmgren said DNR staff are looking into what will be needed to get the program up and running, but funding will be necessary.

“Our desire is to implement the program,” Palmgren said.

A prescribed fire flares up in a fuel-heavy portion of a burn unit at The Highlands, Grand Rapids nature preserve. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

Not having the program snuffs out prescribed fire opportunities for many potential burners, Vander Yacht believes. If independent contractors had the protections afforded by the certification, they would feel more comfortable to execute more prescribed fires, he said.

“I think the opportunities would greatly expand in the state if this certified burn manager program was actually funded and had the backing,” Vander Yacht said.

Such a program might help the state meet the needs for fire on the landscape as well as ensure that those goals are being met safely and intentionally.

“It’s providing a level of training so that they’re as safe as they can be and at the same time making sure that we’re supporting all of those types of small burning efforts,” McGowan-Stinski said. “So then collectively we’re building a fire community and seeing an increase in understanding of why we’re doing prescribed fire and fire effects, and then ideally an increase in fire across the landscape.”

. . .

McGowan-Stinski has one important caveat for putting more fire on the ground: The goal of burning needs to be more than simply making the ground black. Before and after lighting the match on a prescribed fire, it’s crucial to consider and monitor for fire effects, he said. Is the match holder achieving the goals—whether they pertain to fuels reduction, environmental restoration or forestry—that they set out to achieve when they wrote their burn prescription?

Heslinga credits McGowan-Stinski for informing his approach to prescribed fire at the Land Conservancy.

“It should never be the goal of management to do a burn, to make the ground black. That’s not the goal. The goal is to achieve some ecological outcome. The fire is a tool to achieve that outcome,” Heslinga said.

McGowan-Stinski noted that larger agencies will often set a static goal of burning, for example, 600 acres per year.

“Well that’s great if those 600 acres have a logical fire effects need or fuel reduction or whatever. But if you’re pushing just to burn acreage and your goal is ‘Yay, we lit 600 acres up,’ but you don’t really care what the fire effects were, that’s useless. It’s more than useless: you’re putting yourself and your crew and your agency at risk, to do what?” McGowan-Stinski said.

“I have a graphic that I often use: It’s a garbage can, and you take the money that you would have spent on the burns if all your goal is ‘Alright, we need to see 600 acres black,’ and you put that in the garbage can and light it on fire. You then have your smoke and your flame and if you take the ashes and spread it over 600 acres, you have effectively put fire in the form of ashes over 600 acres,” he said. “You’ve had your flame and your smoke and you’ve had the same effect: Nothing.”

Monitoring for effects after a burn can help managers understand if they are meeting their goals.

“The monitoring aspect is something that is overlooked quite a bit. Not that it needs to be this rigorous, scientific thing, but you need to go back and look at the site and see if the burn did what you thought it was going to do, and if not, why not?” Heslinga said.

. . .

Ultimately, Cohen said he hopes his team’s research and outreach will get land managers thinking about how to address increasing fire on Michigan’s native fire-dependent ecosystems.

“The structure of an organization can influence how fire gets applied on the ground,” Cohen said. “The focus initially was more on informing site-level decisions about applying fire to the ecologically most important places across the landscape. But then as we developed the model, we saw that it could have a broader impact in terms of helping inform regional planning and then also helping inform policy making.”

Cohen said he hopes that the fire needs model will get agency staff thinking about how institutional barriers may be contributing to the dearth of fire on the landscape.

“Part of its intention is to inspire discussion,” Cohen said. “The ultimate goal is more fire across the landscape: increase the scale and frequency of fire application and broaden application across seasons and geographies. More fire.”

Disclosure: The author is employed by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

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Climate change calls on us to learn to live with fire

By Marie Orttenburger

Illustrations by Spencer High

The brightly colored Karner blue butterfly favors a likewise brightly colored flower as its singular host plant: wild blue lupine.

Wild blue lupine thrives on dry, sandy soils in areas that range from open and sun drenched to partially shaded—conditions characteristic of oak savannas and pine barrens. To maintain these open habitats, disturbance that pushes shade-casting competitors out of the ecosystem is essential. In the natural world, that disturbance comes in the form of wildfire.

Fire suppression has reduced the kinds of habitat that support wild blue lupine and Karner blue butterflies to less than .01% of their original ground cover. Both species are declining, but the butterfly has it worse.

Karner blue butterfly. Image: Jill Utrup/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It is a federally endangered species. The butterfly’s Michigan stronghold—if you can call it that—is in a handful of counties on the west side of the state. Its numbers are dwindling fast—in no small part due to a century-long habit of putting out the fires that would have created the habitat it needs to thrive.

In addition to rarity, existing habitat is heavily fragmented by development. Unlike the familiar monarch butterfly, which travels thousands of miles each year, Karner blue butterflies can’t easily move from patch to distant patch. Without large sections of connected habitat, the species is vulnerable.

A little over a century ago, the Karner blue butterfly wasn’t boxed into disparate rooms across the landscape. When a patch of habitat became unsuitable for some reason, Karner blues could easily escape to greener—or, rather, bluer—pastures.

The same is not true today, and that presents a challenge for land managers hoping to restore oak savannas and pine barrens with prescribed fire.

A little over a century ago, the Karner blue butterfly wasn’t boxed into disparate rooms across the landscape. When a patch of habitat became unsuitable for some reason, Karner blues could easily escape to greener—or, rather, bluer—pastures.

The same is not true today, and that presents a challenge for land managers hoping to restore oak savannas and pine barrens with prescribed fire.

The Karner blue butterfly needs a plant that needs fire, but it is itself a fire-sensitive species. If a fire is passing through its home, that butterfly needs to find a safe haven or it will die.

When land managers use prescribed fire to support habitat for this endangered creature, they leave patches of unburned land called “refugia.” It is a necessary measure to help a vulnerable species survive the treatment it needs to persist in a fragmented, warming world.

. . .

To understand how the changing climate influences fire in Michigan and elsewhere, it is helpful to know one of the first concepts those who work with fire learn in their training: the fire behavior triangle.

Fire behavior triangle.

Not to be confused with the fire triangle, another fundamental concept that explains what it takes for most fires to ignite (heat, oxygen and fuel), the fire behavior triangle describes three key factors that influence how quickly and intensely a fire moves across the landscape.

One leg is topography: the slope of the landscape. Fire tends to move more quickly uphill and more slowly downhill.

Another leg is fuel: things that can be burned on a given landscape. Anything the fire can consume is fuel—the amount and kind of fuel dictates how fast and hot the fire gets.

The final leg is weather: relative humidity, temperature and wind speed and direction—not just on the day of the fire, but even in the weeks leading up to it—can all influence how a fire will burn on the land.

Over the past 200 years, people have dramatically changed two of those legs, which is changing how wildfires behave. Fire suppression and climate change are influencing the fuel and weather legs of the triangle. 

“The U.S. has been really good at putting out fires for a little over 100 years now,” said Jessica Miesel, a forest ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist at Michigan State University. “So over 100 years, we’ve been accumulating vegetation, and during drought, that vegetation is available as fuel for a fire.”

Smokey Bear is a figurehead of the United States’s century-long culture of fire suppression. Image: U.S. Forest Service

Add to that longer periods of hotter, drier weather courtesy of climate change, and you’ve got the recipe for record-breaking wildfires across the globe.

“These are the two key contributors to why we’re seeing fires that are larger, hotter and more severe in many areas of the world,” Miesel said.

In Michigan and other parts of northeastern America, the effects of climate on wildfire are not yet as clear. These areas just haven’t experienced fires that illustrate those changes.

“The big issue with fire and climate change is that the fire environment is changing, but it may not be realized until there’s an ignition,” said Michael Stambaugh, a dendrochronologist with the Missouri Tree-Ring Laboratory at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“You don’t see Michigan’s fire regimes changing very quickly, but everything except for the actual fire is changing,” said Stambaugh, who studies the fire scars on tree rings to learn about early fire history. “The number of months it can burn, instead of being six, may now be seven or eight. The potential for crown fire, maybe historically it was 50%, now it’s 70%. You won’t see it realized until fire happens.”

But natural land managers must still determine how to support the continued health of the landscapes they care for—and the well-being of the people who live near them—as things inevitably continue to change.

“From the manager’s side, it’s a big unknown,” said Jack McGowan-Stinski, program manager for the Lake States Fire Science Consortium. “We’re kind of always on the tip of the knife. We’re having to try to manage lands with information we have but knowing there’s a whole lot of information we don’t have and aren’t going to get.”

. . .

Climate predictions are factored into planning for agencies like the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The DNR’s most recent Forest Action Plan notes that climate change contributes to rising temperatures, decreasing snowfall, longer growing seasons and more precipitation in the spring and fall.

These trends, should they continue, define some likely winners and losers in Michigan forests. Moisture-loving and heat-sensitive boreal species like birch, red maple and aspen will struggle. Meanwhile, xeric species and habitats that are heat- and drought-tolerant, like oaks and tallgrass prairies, may be winners.

“These are considered pretty climate-resilient ecosystems, just based, I believe, on their natural ability to deal with prolonged drought,” said Nick Sanchez, a certified forester and conservation easement stewardship specialist with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

If you’re following along, you may wonder: Wait, wouldn’t that mean climate change might help create more habitat for the Karner blue butterfly? Aren’t mesic species overabundant in Michigan’s xeric ecosystems due to fire suppression, anyway? Could it even be a good thing that climate is likely going to reduce these species’ stronghold?


Climate change could have a role in restoring a balance that drastic landscape changes by European Americans disrupted. A century of fire suppression has enabled moisture-loving species to move into spaces where they had traditionally hung around the margins—spaces with soils that aren’t meant to hold moisture. In a future predicted to have more fire and more drought, it’s the fire- and drought-tolerant species that are expected to survive.

Faced with these outcomes, land managers must decide: Use fire to accelerate the removal of mesophytic species like red maple from ecosystems that are supposed to be xeric? Or let climate change take care of that and focus resources and time elsewhere?

Where forest meets prairie: Volunteers light a prescribed burn to discourage encroachment of woody plants on an open grassland at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

“It’s the same line of reasoning but two completely divergent management scenarios or solutions,” said Justin Heslinga, stewardship director at the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. “We’ve even argued internally about what we should do there.”

These are the kind of questions that climate change forces land managers to answer. When it came to addressing red maple on the Land Conservancy’s preserves, Heslinga’s team made their call by taking a close look at what is happening on the ground. There are other factors driving the overabundance of red maple, and at least for now, it’s too much not to do something about.

“Deer preferentially choose other species over red maple, so abundance of deer is driving red maple, fire suppression is driving red maple—all evidence points to red maple on the increase, regardless of what climate predictions say,” Heslinga said. “There might be other pressures on the landscape that are swamping the effect of climate change, at least temporarily.”

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan will continue using tools including prescribed fire to push mesic, woody species out of habitats that are supposed to be more open.

The unknowns of climate change necessitate this kind of flexible approach.

“In Michigan, it’s still a pretty big question mark,” said Glenn Palmgren, fire management specialist with the DNR. “It’s clear that things are changing, but how they’re changing and how we react to that—I guess we’re just going to have to be nimble on our feet.”

Others agree.

“We don’t know what we should do. It’s going to take people trying things and learning. Practicing adaptive management, doing applied research, monitoring,” Leslie Brandt, a climate change specialist at the National Institute of Applied Climate Science, said during a panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Fire Science Exchange Network.

“It’s going to be location specific, we’re going to have to constantly adapt as weather conditions change.”

. . .

Regardless of what the future may hold, fire has a role to play. McGowan-Stinski believes that to make the most of it, both land managers and the public will need to adapt their thinking.

In Michigan, managers who use prescribed fire may have to adjust their usual schedules. Climate trends are shrinking the favored burn windows for prescribed fire: Springs and falls (dormant seasons) are getting shorter and wetter. 

McGowan-Stinski advocates that managers do more “growing season” burns during the summer.

“If our springs are potentially getting wetter, you may have to shift your burning out of your so-called spring season, because you don’t have a spring season that’s the same as it was a decade or two decades ago,” he said.

McGowan-Stinski also believes there is a need for a societal perspective shift on how the public think’s about fire—one that’s more akin to how we approach other natural disasters.

“With fire, we’ve created our own trap. With tornadoes, hurricanes and other large abiotic disturbances, we don’t try to stop them when they’re going. We have either a prep phase to reduce it, or a post phase to do the clean-ups and everything and prepare for the next one,” McGowan-Stinski said. “We need to get into that mentality with fire, too.”

What would it look like if the public, McGowan-Stinski proposed, “recognized that fire is just like rain?” What would it mean to build communities that aren’t at risk of being engulfed in flames when a fire happens in a neighboring forest—to effectively turn our homes into refugia amidst wildfire, as we do for the Karner blue butterfly?

“What tools can we use to set the stage so that when we have those wildfires, they’re not as catastrophic, or they’re not catastrophic at all, but just a wildfire?” he said.

Prescribed fire is one tool. It can reduce fuel loads in forests that haven’t seen fire for decades. It can also create a firewall between a forest that may one day burn and a community that needs to be protected. Both measures dramatically reduce the likelihood that a wildfire will result in the loss of lives, property or important habitat—and have the added benefit of reintroducing the ecological benefits of fire into systems that have been deprived of it for over a century.

Comparison of effects of wildfire on a fire-suppressed forest and versus one managed with prescribed fire. Forests that have heavy fuel loads experience more devastating wildfire effects than those that have been treated with prescribed fire. Image: Spencer High

It can also reduce the carbon emissions that intense, uncontrolled wildfires would otherwise unleash. Though it’s true that prescribed fire produces carbon emissions of its own, research has shown that it is less than the amount released by raging wildfires and is counteracted in part by the carbon sequestration prescribed fire promotes by supporting the regrowth of plants.

And the public appears to be coming around to it.

“We are seeing a big cultural shift in the acceptance of fire,” McGowan-Stinski said.

Continued improvement of public perception weighs in part on managers effectively mitigating risks. There is a degree of inevitability that out of all the prescribed fires applied, one will escape the boundaries of its unit. It happened this spring in Oscoda, during a Forest Service burn. The original prescription was for around 2,000 acres. It eventually burned nearly 6,000. No people or structures were harmed.

Brian Stearns, a Forest Service assistant fire management officer who focuses on fuels management in the Huron-Manistee National Forests, attributes this outcome to work he and his colleagues did on the landscape in years prior.

“All the work that we had been doing over the last few years protected two different subdivisions. The fuel breaks did everything that they were supposed to,” Stearns said. “The areas that we had treated with multiple entries of prescribed burning, the timber value was saved in those. Those areas that were never prescribed burned or only burned once all had severe crown fire. The severity was high enough that it was almost complete loss of the timber.”

All of that provides proof that prescribed fire works. From Stearns’s perspective, that is reflected in the local community’s attitude about it.

“Between that one and some previous incidents where our fuel breaks and prescribed burning had saved homes and communities, I would say for the most part, the folks that have been in the area look at it favorably,” he said.

Disclosure: The author is employed by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

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