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      Wildfires Ravaged the U.P.: August 1933

      Along with the drought, the first two months of the summer of 1933 were exceptionally warm in the same areas.

      Traditionally, Upper Michiganâ??s wildfire season is during the spring after the snow melts before green up. Occasionally, a second season occurs in late summer during a drought. One of the worst second seasons was in 1933. The central U.S. was in the grip of serious drought during the Dust Bowl (Image above) On August 7 that year, fires were burning from Gogebic to Keweenaw Counties and from Iron Mountain to Delta Counties up to Marquette County. About 2,000 men were pressed into service to fight the wildfires.

      Hot, dry weather poked northeastward into Upper Michigan in the summer of 1933. June ended 6 degrees above average, while July had 11 days with "extreme" heat (Image 2 above). At the same time, rainfall during the seventh month was only around half the long-term average. All summer months had temperatures exceeding average, while moisture deficits plagued the region from late spring through the entire summer. No rain fell from July 23 to August 10. It was during this period that fires began popping up in scattered sections of Upper Michigan. Over the weekend of August 5-6, brisk, dry winds began fanning the flames.

      The blaze around Diorite in Marquette County on August 7 was 6 miles long and 4 miles wide at its peak. Firefighters from Negaunee, Ishpeming, Gwinn and Michigamme kept the fire from the town by pumping water out of nearby Boston Lake; pouring it on brush and trees surrounding the town. After an all night vigil, the threat to the community was averted. Fires were also reported near Hogsback Mountain northwest of Marquette. At one point, strong winds pushed the fire completely over the mountain.

      In Baraga County, the most serious fire occurred near Arnheim, involving 700 acres. Four farm houses were saved, but not before the families occupying them fled with their belongings. The Delta and Menominee Fire District reported 65 fires during this period, the largest number of any area in the U.P.

      On August 8, the Iron Mountain News gave a bleak assessment of the situation: "several thousand, weary, grimy firefighters prayed for rain as they vainly sought to halt the flames' advance through tinder-dry forests, brush and slashings." In the southern U.P., vast tracts of timber were destroyed, while farm buildings and at least one sawmill and logging camp were reduced to ashes. Hundreds of persons, both permanent residents and summer vacationers, fled as the fires spread. Many head of livestock were reported killed.

      Heavy smoke clouds descended on Iron Mountain at the height of the fires on August 7. By the next day, only a haze remained over the city. Towermen watching from their perches across the district saw only occasional puffs of smoke, not the heavy, billowing clouds of the day before.

      Fires also broke out on the east end of the U.P. at the height of the dry spell. On Sugar Island, east of the Sault, rich hardwood timberland belonging to the University of Michigan was threatened, as well as the summer home of former Governor Chase Osborn. A troop of 44 Boy Scouts and 70 men fought the blaze, saving the Osborn home and minimizing damage to the forest preserve.

      The fires quieted down as the month wore on, yet the situation remained dire. August 1933 was the driest summer month over most of the peninsula. Marquette received only 0.80 inches of rain the entire month, a scant 30 percent of normal.

      At the end of the month, several fires broke out on the west end in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, as well as on the east end in Mackinac County. The largest occurred near Lake Pomeroy in Marenisco Township. It consumed about 4,000 acres of cut-over land in three days. By September 1, the stubborn fire had burned several lumber camps and then jumped U.S. 2 near the intersection of M-64. Men from the communities of Bessemer and Wakefield joined the 140 Civilian Conservation Corps workers already battling the blaze.

      Other fires broke out in Ontonagon County. The worst were on the White Pine Road and in the Victoria Mine territory. All fires were well under control September 5, but a high wind developed and rekindled the flames. Citizens were asked to report any fire, no matter how small, and to "render all assistance possible in checking them." The call was put out when heavy smoke rendered towermen virtually helpless. One towerman near Ewen reported that smoke was so thick, he could not see the bottom of his tower. The smoke billowed eastward on the teeth of a brisk west wind. Towermen in Marquette County were "virtually crippled" by the thick smoke from the west-end fires; visibility was reduced to a half mile at times.

      As the first week of September came to a close, it became evident that the White Pine fire was set. A conservation department spokesman said the blaze had "all the earmarks" of an incendiary blaze. The main bit of evidence pointing to arson was the fact that it started on a hill. In the spokesman's view, the fire was deliberately set there so it would gain headway before being discovered.

      The stubborn fires continued to flare up after a long season of drought. Up to 1,500 men continued battling the blazes. Finally, the weary firefighters received relief in the form of a heavy, steady rain on September 8.

      An estimated 30,000 acres burned in Ontonagon and Gogebic Counties during the late summer of 1933. It would be the worst summer fire conditions until persistent drought set the stage for another famous fire in the eastern U.P. 43 years later.