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New book recalls the story of the Seney fire

Gregory M. Lusk with a copy of his book, “The Great Seney Fire, A History of the Walsh Ditch Fire of 1976.”

HANCOCK — In 1976, during a record drought, the largest fire in Michigan since 1908 burned from late July until winter snow finally extinguished it.

A recently self-published book by Gregory M. Lusk, “The Great Seney Fire, A History of the Walsh Ditch Fire of 1976,” tells the story of the fire with extensive descriptions of the natural history of the region, historical fires, fire weather, a diary of the fire, hotshot stories, the aftermath — both ecological and political — and what the future may hold for managing wildfires in the Upper Peninsula.

Using more than 100 figures, including original photos, graphs and maps, the book describes the superb job that was done in suppressing the fire, by highly skilled, professional people, dedicated to the conservation of Michigan’s and the nation’s natural resources.

A recent review in the Michigan Forest Magazine said: “(the) book gives a day-to-day summary of the fire and the resources needed to combat the fire. You will read personal memories along with scientific explanations of fire weather and estimating fire danger. A selection of pictures shows some of the equipment and camp life on a large fire complex. A good read for any wildland firefighter or anyone interested in fire and the results of fire to the environment.” 

The Walsh Ditch Fire, named for the closest landmark and more commonly known as the Seney Fire, started on July 30 from a dry lightning storm. It was spotted by aerial patrol within the designated wilderness on the Seney National Wildlife Refuge the next day.

The refuge manager thought no action could be taken on the fire, since it was in a Congressionally designated “wilderness” area. The fire grew to 1,200 acres in almost two weeks before any suppression action took place. Several weeks after the initial report, the fire “blew up,” and spread out of the wilderness and off the refuge onto state and private land.

All told, the fire spread over 72,500 acres during a period of record drought, requiring an interagency firefighting force of more than 1,200 firefighters from 22 agencies and 29 states to achieve containment at a cost (adjusted for inflation) of more than $40 million.

Lusk, a native Yooper, now lives in Hancock with his wife, Sandra. In early August 1976, he left his normal duties as a fire specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Marquette and was assigned as the assistant fire boss for the state’s suppression efforts on the Seney Fire.

His experiences several years earlier in Vietnam as a platoon leader were as valuable as his degree in forestry from Michigan Technological University and his extensive training in fire behavior in the effort. The leaves were falling and snow was spitting by the time he finally got home.

Long after he retired as the Upper Peninsula state fire supervisor, he dug out his boxes of information, news clippings, maps and notes and began writing the history of the Great Seney fire.

He was motivated, partly, by the thought that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; with hopes that this account will help others remember and understand this small but important piece of Michigan history.

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