Children, community come together during forest fire

by 8-18 Media

fire-421162_640On May 20, 2009 a fire broke in a rural, but fairly populated area off of County Road 581 south of Ishpeming. The fire was caused by a fallen power line and resulting sparks. Because of the very dry and windy conditions, the fire spread quickly.
The fire burned for several days and by the time it was contained more than thirty buildings burned—about twenty of those buildings were houses. The fire ended up burning more than 800 acres of land along the Escanaba and Black Rivers and was given the name The Black River Falls Fire by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. During the time the fire was battled, a large number of residents along County Road 581––some 500 according to officials––were evacuated. Of the evacuees, significant numbers were children younger than eighteen.
When families were told to evacuate, they only had a matter of minutes, in some cases, to grab what they could and get out. Many of the families were unable to grab anything since the fire spread so quickly and it started during the school and workday.
Tia Haglund, seventeen, received an urgent call from her dad sometime after 5:00 p.m. on May 20. He asked her to go quickly to their house and grab some important things, including the family cat.
“My dad had called me and told me we were being evacuated and I needed to hurry home to grab pictures or anything that I would want in case the fire did reach our house,” Haglund said. “I was really afraid because I wasn’t sure my house was going to be there when I got back.”
Haglund was especially nervous because she had heard her friend’s house had burned already only about a mile from her house.
8-18-Media-Logo-300x101“I was really upset—I started crying,” she said. “I can remember driving there and not being sure what was going to happen or what it was going to be like when I got there.”
What the families who live in the area around the fire really wanted most in those uncertain hours was information on their family members, pets and property. The place to get any information available was at the Red Cross shelter located in Westwood High School in Ishpeming Township. Red Cross officials said about 300 people passed through the shelter on May 20. Annie Stanger, a spokesperson for the central Upper Peninsula Chapter of the American Red Cross, the shelter was an important focal point.
“Our job was to set up a shelter where people who were evacuated from their homes could go because there was worry that they couldn’t get through the roads, or they couldn’t get back to their house, or their house might be burned down,” she said.
Larry Boburka, a guidance counselor at Westwood High School, described the mood of the youth at the shelter that first day while the fire was still blazing and the fate of their homes was uncertain.
“There were small groups of kids throughout the gym,” he said. “I think they were trying not to let people see how scared they actually were. Many students whose houses were not in danger of burning showed up to provide support to their friends. And, if someone did look very upset, they would quickly be surrounded by hugs and words of encouragement from their peers.”
According to Stanger, there were a number of evacuated families with kids that came to the shelter for information, food or other support.
“There were a lot of small children and there were a lot of high school kids as well,” she said. “Some of the high school kids were just around because they were at ball practice or something and they were curious about what was going on at the shelter. So some came and helped us in a number of ways.”
Stanger said volunteers played games with the younger kids and set up and unloaded equipment. Haglund was one of the youth who showed up at the shelter to help out. She helped bring in blankets, bottled water and other drinks.
“I helped out there as much as I could because I figured…what better to do than help other people that are in the same situation as you?” she said.
A testament to the local support is that, according to Stanger, no one under eighteen had to sleep at the shelter. Some local residents felt bad for the families with children so they offered to give up their houses or apartments so the families would have a more comfortable place to stay.
As many as 100 firefighters and other emergency personnel were at the scene during the height of the blaze. Many of those firefighters’ children were told a parent or loved one had been called out to the big fire.
Khora Swanson, nine, of Ishpeming, has a father who is a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and he was called to assist at the scene. Swanson said she was scared, but proud of the part he played in battling the fire.
“He could have been burned or hurt in the fire, and I was worried about him,” Swanson said. “But, I was also proud of him because he risked his life to fight a huge fire for other people and that was good.”
Swanson said her dad was gone for a day, and came back for a little while, then had to leave again for a couple of days. She said when he came home he told her how hot it was there and how tired he was.
Swanson’s family also has a camp out near County Road 581, but luckily it was not damaged. After the fire was out, she and her family took a ride out to their camp and her dad showed them some of the things that happened, some houses that were burned and some that were saved.
“As we were driving there to go see it, my dad was showing my mom a lot of the fire,” she said. “They dug fire lines around houses, and you could just see all of the trees that were all black, and you would look at the house and it seemed like nothing was wrong. The house was just perfect, but all around it the trees were burned.”
Haglund is thankful for the firefighting efforts: “We were far enough away, but I think if the firefighters wouldn’t have been there, [my house] would have been gone.”
The Red Cross, the Marquette County Fire Relief Fund, and other agencies helped the victims of the fire immediately by giving them money or cash cards to buy what they needed to live comfortably until they could return home or find alternative housing. They also provided the evacuees with a “comfort kit” that had toothpaste, a toothbrush, shampoo, soap and wash cloths. The Red Cross and many local businesses and volunteers also helped by providing food and snacks, clothing and games for the families to play and to be comfortable while at the shelter. Stanger said the kids at the shelter stayed busy.
“We had lots of food for them to eat and they liked that,” she said. “We also just played basketball with them and talked and teased with them. A lot of times they kind of sat around their family, but once they got a little more comfortable, they just kind of played with each other.”
Boburka said the mood of the crowd stayed upbeat throughout the uncertainty.
“There was a lot of trepidation and anxiety,” he said. “Nobody wanted to lose their home and their stuff. But I heard a lot of phrases like ‘I’m glad everybody got out safely.’ And, when the fire department made an informational announcement about the fire control process, people actually stood up and thanked them with applause.”
As the news of the fire spread—at about the same pace as the flames—the phone lines at the Red Cross office rang on and off all day with callers asking what they could do to help. According to Stanger, an account was quickly set up at the Ishpeming Community Federal Credit Union to accept cash donations while the Salvation Army and P.C. Medic and Fox Motors (Ishpeming Township and Negaunee businesses, respectively) opened their doors for clothing, furniture and other donations. After the fire, victims were allowed to select what they needed to get back on their feet. The remaining goods were sold in a large rummage sale, with the proceeds to go toward the victims. Many community fundraisers have been held to raise funds. The Black River Falls Fire Victims Fund at the Ishpeming Community Federal Credit Union still is accepting donations for the many families now struggling to recover.
The fire destroyed twenty homes, but the whole community came together to support one another. According to Boburka, the way this community reacted showed how much neighbors care about each other.
“People can learn a lot about a community when faced with a crisis. I learned that the people of Ely Township are some of the toughest, most resilient folks on this planet,” he said. “They came together and helped each other out like a giant family. There is still a lot of work to be done. But, if what they showed during the fire is any indication of their ability to bounce back, I believe they will be OK. The people of [the Ishpeming area] are a perfect example of why we choose to live in the U.P.”
—8-18 Media

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Tia Platteborze, 12, Lorissa Juntti, 10, Sydney Dorow, 10, and Mariel Morton, 10.

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