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On August 2, 2015, the massive storm that swept through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (National Lakeshore) caused substantial blowdown of the park’s trees. The National Lakeshore’s initial storm recovery priority was to reopen heavily used visitor areas such as the D. H. Day Campground, Glen Haven Historic District, and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The National Park Service (NPS) is now planning its response to wildland fire fuel loading associated with the storm.
The storm has understandably raised concerns regarding the possibility of increased wildland fire risks. The National Lakeshore brought in NPS fire professionals during the week of October 5 to evaluate risks and discuss the need and approach for reducing fuel loads and/or establishing fuel breaks, where warranted. They confirmed that the recently downed green trees do not pose a fire threat at present, and that area roads afford viable fuel breaks in many locations. They recommended, however, the National Lakeshore work with individual property owners to establish fuel breaks and defensible space near homes or other “values at risk” where downed trees and brush may pose a threat in the future, and suggested potential funding sources to pay for this work. The National Lakeshore has already begun pursuing this funding.
In the meantime, property owners do not have to wait to reduce risks to their homes and property. Those concerned about wildland fire risks from any adjacent forest (whether affected by blowdowns or not) are encouraged to create "defensible space" around homes and structures on their own property.
The keys to protecting property from wildland fire risk are limiting the amount of flammable vegetation and materials surrounding the building and increasing the moisture content of remaining vegetation. This typically involves removing available fuels, limbing up trees, mowing, and adjusting landscaping around structures (i.e., within 100-200 feet) on the property itself. Especially after a storm like the area experienced, homeowners also should resist the convenience of stockpiling firewood near structures, dragging downed wood and brush to forest edges, or dumping other yard waste into nearby woods. These activities may inadvertently increase risks to their structures by increasing fuel loads in the most critical areas - nearest their homes.
There are great online resources available to help homeowners in communities like Glen Arbor understand how best to create “defensible space” and manage fire risks where it matters most – nearest their homes (e.g., firewise.org). Those specifically interested in wildland fire safety and ways to protect their homes should go to http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/emergency-preparedness/natural-disasters/wildfires to download the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Safety Tips located on the right-hand side of the webpage.
Storm blowdowns remain one of the primary natural sources of disturbance in northern hardwood forests. The NPS considers these changes a natural, if dramatic, part of the life cycle of these forests. Shrubs and saplings will begin to fill in the forest gaps, dead and decaying trees will provide habitat for a host of birds, bats, insects, and other animals while returning nutrients to the soil. The return of mature hardwood forest will take decades, but it will happen. These forests have similarly recovered from major clear cutting in the past. In general, the NPS would not interfere with this natural recovery process through removal of downed woody debris, unless there are overriding concerns from a public safety standpoint, as the recent storm caused in several locations. The National Lakeshore may, however, clear and even re-plant in more managed landscapes such as campgrounds and historic areas.