"[History is] a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man." -Percy Bysshe Shelley

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the powell marsh fire

Powell Marsh went up in flames in 1932, and Carl Christensen was on the scene. Not only did he fight to contain the fire, but he survived it in a pretty amazing fashion when he seemed likely to be engulfed in flames! Read on...

That summer, they had someone out on Powell Marsh and they was gonna heat up a cup of coffee or something. They made a fire out there and they started Powell Marsh on fire. That fire swept up to the Powell Road. We fought with as much as we could fight with to keep it from going across Powell Road because it would have got into Manitowish and wiped out everything. So the wind went down and the fire died out, which was lucky for us, but on the other side, into the marsh, it kept going.

Powell Marsh today: a rather nondescript photo courtesy of the DNR

Powell Marsh is about 12,000 acres or more that burnt over that year. I worked on that because everyone in the country was called in because they recruited us to go to work on that fire. So I was one of them and George La Porte was along there and some of the other local fellows, I don’t remember all their names now. We had men from Mercer, we had men from Winegar and from Winchester. We were all working on that fire. And they called the CC’s in and the commander, what we wanted to do was backfire and the commander says no. He says you can’t backfire because that’s not legal. We have to put it out. All them CC boys was walking around with tanks on their backs with a squirt hose on so they could squirt on the edge. That was all right putting the fire out where there was a little edge on it. They couldn’t get water. I was the only one there that had a legal blasting license to blast with dynamite. So what they had me do was blast holes in the marsh so they could get water. So the CC would pound up a hole and drill down into the marsh maybe five or six feet or so and then I would load that with dynamite, set it off and then they would have an open crater there that would fill with water so they could get water for their tanks.

So we kept on with that and we couldn’t see that at all because that wasn’t the way to put that fire out. So one night a whole bunch of us got across and we went down on lower Rice Lake and we cut cross land, over, and hit the marsh. Carried two fire engines and 1500 feet of fire hose along and brought that over. There was a lake at the lower end of the marsh that we wrapped and connected to and put that on there and put that end of the marsh out. So then there was a canal that ran from a lake that was way over in Lac du Flambeau that used to have a resort back in there. There were a lot of buildings, there was a hunting camp. And they had a canal built from Alder Lake to this lake and that would fill with water so they could float the boats from Alder Lake up there to that other lake. That was full up with mud and limbs and everything that over the years and there was no flow of water going through there. So, I think there was six of us, George La Porte, he seemed to be the main boss of the whole works. He says, I want two guys to stay here and keep this thing open and the rest of us will go down in the other end. So I says OK George, I’ll stay and then there was a fellow from Winegar says, I’ll stay with you. So we stayed there and we kept the water flowing down that canal so that it wouldn’t fill up with anything, driftwood or anything else that come into it.

We never realized the fire was all around us until I happened to look up and it was getting smoky. And I says to the guy from Winegar, I says, boy, I says, it looks like we’re surrounded with fire. He got shook up all right, right away, and says what are we gonna do? I says, well, we can’t go through that blaze, we’re just gonna have to stay here. Well, he says, we’ll burn. I says, we’ll figure some way out of this.

And there was a lot of big pine trees there and we could get air by putting our noses up against the pine tree opposite of the wind and circled around behind us and there was enough air and there wasn’t smoke in it. So finally it got so bad that we dug a hole down at the edge of the lake. There was a bank there and we crawled in that bank underneath there and wet our handkerchiefs and put them over our faces.

And the fire went right over us. Burnt the pine trees around us and everything else. So when the fire had gone all there was was smoldering smoke. So we just stayed there for a while and says we got to get out of here. I says, I know we do. So we started to go back along that canal and there we run into fire all the way along there. We couldn’t get through it and it wasn’t until late at night that the fire had gone down so that we could get through.

We got back to a cottage on Alder Lake. I had been married just a short time and my wife was up there and they told me that they had been out looking for us because they figured that we were in the fire, surrounded by it, and they were looking for us and everything else. They even had an airplane flying around looking for us that day.

Well, anyways we got out of that and then the next day we went over, cross over almost into the Flambeau. And started a fire in a small narrow gap of the marsh and we started a fire there and as we went along we put the fire out because we had the hoses and the fire pumps working. So we did that during the daytime and at night we crossed over a lake or it was more of a muck lake than anything else and put all the hoses, fire pumps and everything else in the boat and we just about sunk in the middle of the lake because we had such a heavy load on it. And we got ashore over on the Indian side. And the Indians were all fighting the fire over there because it was burning into Flambeau. So the funny part of the whole thing was that we see spots of light here and there all over on the hummocks that were laying here and there in that marsh so we come to find out they was Indians and each one of them had a lantern and we figured out they had the lanterns to see where the fire was....  We did get the fire out. That was the end of that big marsh but there was twenty-one days that we were on that fire. We got ten cents an hour for all the fire work that we did. So that was the end of that there.

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