Persistent hot, dry weather led to a wildfire near Rapid River in early July 1988. The fire, which began July 1 in grass around the site of an old stockyard east of Rapid River, consumed more than 1,000 acres and seriously injured a firefighter. Once started, the blaze spread quickly across the tinder-dry landscape and became a crowning jack pine fire, which jumped U.S. 2. The highway was then closed at the start of the busy Independence Day weekend, forcing holiday travelers to take alternate routes.
It was no holiday for firefighters or for potential victims downwind from the fire. Sixty families were evacuated from homes on the Stonington Peninsula on the evening of July 1 as the fire quickly spread toward Shelly Lake. Crews from the DNR, Forest Service and local volunteer units worked in concert to keep the blaze contained. Their efforts were successful, and the homes were saved. However, a DNR firefighter sustained serious burns.
â??I was running a tractor plow on a flank of the fire,â?? says Jeff Noble. â??I was off my tractor plow to check the condition of my line and as I looked to the north, up the tractor plow line, I saw fire breaking over the line. As it got closer, it was moving like a cork screwâ??a vortex, breaking over the line and rollingâ??moving forward, towards me.â?? The rolling vortex of fire passed over the top of him and he quickly realized his perilous position. â??I got back on the tractor plow,â?? recounts Noble, â??and tried the best I could to get it out of there. I ended up abandoning the tractor and basically running for my life.â??
Noble was pulled to safety by a forest service firefighter, while the fire still rushed at them. He was transported to Milwaukee, where he spent five weeks in the burn unit of St. Maryâ??s Hospital. He sustained second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body. â??I had grafting operations and stuff like that,â?? he explains.
Noble â??got back on the horseâ?? and, as of this writing, is still with the fire fighting unit of the DNR. â??I woke up the next day in the hospital,â?? he remembers. â??I said, â??If thatâ??s the worst they can throw at me, I can handle that.â?? Iâ??ve always loved firefighting. Itâ??s something where at the end of the day, you pretty much know whether or not youâ??ve accomplished your goals for that day. And thereâ??s the whole thing about working for future generations. The work we do there on a day-to-day basis carries on into the future.â??
The fire that took Noble out was officially declared under control Monday afternoon, the Fourth of Julyâ??three days after it started. Officials declared that it would not be totally out until there was a three-day rain. â??That was a crazy year,â?? Noble recalls. â??We were running fires around Escanaba in March; normally, we donâ??t really start until April. The most frustrating fire is one of those that occur in drought years like 1988; especially when we get organic fuel firesâ?|where the fire burns down beneath the surface. Itâ??s such a pain getting in there to those and eradicating every last bit of fire.â??
Heat and drought prolonged the high fire danger through July 1988. The drought was rated extreme over parts of the northern Plains into the Upper Mississippi Valley in the early part of the summer (Image 1 above). Drought exacerbates heat and that was truly the case in the torrid summer of 1988. It ranks as one of the hottest of the latter part of the 20th century. This year, the conditions couldnâ??t be more different. There has been adequate moisture since spring (Image 2). The lingering drought in Iowa displayed on the May map has been wiped out. Northwestern Iowa received over a foot of rain in June alone. The wet ground and overall pattern argues for moderate temperatures and adequate moisture through the heart of the summer over the Upper Midwest including the U.P.