National Park Week Serves as a Reminder of Our Responsibility to Protect the Parks
ADG Staff Writer Ren Brabenec helps a senior citizen board a National Park Service evacuation vessel. Photo courtesy of Laura Partain Photography.
National Park Week runs from April 22nd to April 30th each year. Held in conjunction with Earth Day, National Park Week is a celebration of the most treasured landscapes and landmarks in the United States, our beloved 63 National Parks.
This year, we're celebrating National Park Week by recognizing that the responsibility of preserving these natural wonders rests on the shoulders of all who enjoy them. Few can tell that story better than our staff writer Ren Brabenec, who saw first-hand what happens when careless park visitors don't follow the rules and regulations for enjoying National Parks responsibly. While backpacking in Isle Royale National Park last summer with his father, Ren encountered the Mt. Franklin Wildfire, a devastating human-caused forest fire.
The following is a transcription of an essay Ren wrote detailing his experience. This story initially appeared in a local Michigan newspaper that serves the Isle Royale community.
"Fire Means Flee, Hiker's Firsthand Account of Isle Royale's Mt. Franklin Wildfire"
- By Ren Brabenec
No one expects a wildfire when backpacking an island, not until smoke is heading your way and park rangers evacuate your campground.
The morning of August 13th found me hiking Isle Royale National Park’s iconic Greenstone Ridge, a much-anticipated adventure my father and I had been planning for over a decade. As we made our way east along the ridge, our noses detected a hint of wood smoke.
Primal alarm bells suppressed by thousands of years of evolution started to ring in the back of my brain. We strained our eyes to see a plume of now undeniable smoke rising into the sky and, as though prodded by unseen spirits bent on making our trip far too exciting, the smoke billowed towards us.
Nestled in Lake Superior and all but removed from civilization, Isle Royale might be the last National Park where one would expect to encounter a wildfire. But if there’s anything our species’ interaction with the natural world has taught us, it's that humans will find a way to leave their mark on nature, often in a terrible way.
Believed to be caused by an illegal campfire, Isle Royale's Mt. Franklin Fire began on the evening of August 12th. Though the island receives fewer visitors than any other National Park in the lower 48, leave it to those who consider themselves too good for the rules to venture to the island, build illegal campfires, and risk the lives of campers and wildlife.
By the morning of August 13th, the fire encompassed 11 acres, blocking the island’s main trail in and out of Rock Harbor, the National Park Ranger Station and campground where most park visitors enter and leave the island.
When my father and I first spotted the fire, we were on the wrong side of it. Still miles away from Rock Harbor and high atop the Greenstone Ridge; we were heading east, the fire was heading west, and the now-thick smoke blocked our path to safety. Remembering my Boy Scout training of how one should never try to outrun a fire and should instead move perpendicular to it, we made a split decision to flee north to Lane Cove Campground. At least we would be off the Greenstone Ridge and down by the lakeshore. Once at the Cove, we could swim out into Lake Superior to escape the fire if we had to.
My father and I made it to Lane Cove. We seemed out of the wildfire’s path, so we breathed sighs of relief in the now fresh air.
But just when our heart rates returned to normal, Fate had other plans for us. Out of nowhere, National Park Service watercraft arrived in Lane Cove and wildfire response aircraft roared overhead.
Park rangers disembarked into the campground and calmly but quickly informed the approximately two dozen campers that an evacuation was imminent. The only trail in and out of Lane Cove, the one my father and I had been on just moments before, was now closed. We were told the fire might be headed our way, and the only way out was by boat.
Smoke from advancing flames is seen just above the treeline. Photo courtesy of Laura Partain Photography.
Laura Partain, a fellow backpacker and professional photographer I met on the island, was with us on the last boat out of Lane Cove. While I helped senior citizens board rescue boats, Laura captured stunning photos of the rescue, the advancing smoke, and the last glimpse of the campground before we sped out of Lane Cove and headed towards a safer area of the island.
National Park Service rangers and volunteers organize an evacuation of some two-dozen campers. Photo courtesy of Laura Partain Photography.
Thanks to impeccable mobilization efforts by park rangers, no one was killed or injured in the Mt. Franklin Fire. Dozens of campers were evacuated from numerous campgrounds and trails, a fleet of NPS watercraft circled the island to transport campers to safety, two wildland fire crews responded to the fire, and emergency response aircraft dropped approximately 4,000 gallons of water on the blaze.
Campers are transferred between two NPS vessels to ensure everyone makes it to safety. Photo courtesy of Laura Partain Photography.
But those involved in other wildfires have not been so lucky. And beyond the annual human death toll are the millions of acres burned and the devastation of entire ecosystems. Since 2000, an annual average of 70,072 wildfires have burned about seven million acres each year. The average annual acreage burned today is more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 85% of wildfires are caused by humans.
Most people think of wildfires as a problem for western states. Isle Royale's Mt. Franklin Fire is a painful reminder that wildfires can occur anywhere there is flammable material, a human presence, and stupidity, malice, or a simple refusal to follow the rules.
Every camper on Isle Royale that week received a park ranger orientation with explicit instructions not to start campfires in the forest due to dry conditions and high risks for wildfires. At the time of this writing, investigators with the National Park Service are still seeking information about the illegal fire and associated camp on the Mt. Franklin Trail on the evening of August 12th and the morning of August 13th. Those who have information that could help are encouraged to submit a tip. Anonymous tips are always welcome. Tip lines include:
If humans are to be the species that will shape this planet's future, it's our responsibility to ensure the planet and all its lifeforms do, indeed, have a future. Every person who spends time in the wilderness shares a part of that responsibility. So when a park ranger says, “No campfires,” please follow the rule. Our enjoyment of nature, and our safety, depend on it.
Art + Action, Our Commitment to the Parks
Ren's story is certainly chilling. After he told us about it, what we all found particularly troublesome was that each of us could recall a time in our own lives when we came face-to-face with a human-caused hardship in a National Park, be it overcrowding, pollution, littering, harassing of wildlife, or, in Ren's case, a human-caused wildfire.
Our team at Anderson Design Group is committed to protecting the National Parks, which is why we donate a portion of our proceeds from our National Park art to foundations, conservancies, and friend groups that protect the parks. We also work directly with these organizations to elevate their work.
We'll keep creating art of America's beloved natural lands and doing our part to protect them, and we hope this story will act as a reminder of how each one of us has a responsibility to protect America's Best Idea.
Happy National Park Week!