Preparedness & Recovery

Lessons Learned From One of Wisconsin’s Largest Forest Fires

“The value of having long-established, strong relationships with partners and cooperators proved hugely beneficial,” says the official report.

by Maria Lockwood, McClatchy News / May 15, 2014
The fire began on the afternoon of May 14, 2013. It quickly consumed nearly 9,000 acres of pine and mixed hardwood forest. Photo courtesy of Flickr CC/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Wisconsin’s largest forest fire in 33 years swept through Douglas County last year. Originating in the town of Gordon the afternoon of May 14, 2013, the Germann Road Fire grew to 7,442 acres over the course of two days. Response to the fire was quick. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rangers spotted the smoke from the fire from three separate towers. They reported it at 2:45 p.m. and by 2:56 p.m. units were arriving on the scene, according to Jay Gallagher, Brule area forestry supervisor with the DNR.

Gordon Fire Chief Mike Chmielecki was the first firefighter on the scene.

“Right away it was pretty obvious it was going to be a large fire,” he said. A couple of acres had already burned and winds were high. Two cabins were in immediate danger, so he drove to them to start evacuations. After a lull in which the firefighters strategized how to best protect nearby properties, the fire pushed into populated territory and they were busy conducting “in the black” fire tactics —going behind the head of the fire to save structures.

Volunteer firefighters from more than 40 towns gathered to battle the blaze with DNR personnel. They lost 104 structures to the flame, the majority sheds and outbuildings. They managed to save 351.

“We saw flames as high as 10-story buildings, smoke so dense we could not see 15 feet in front of the truck and so many burning homes, cabins, garages, outhouses, chicken coops and storage sheds, we stopped counting,” wrote Wascott volunteer firefighter Bill Matthias. “We became numb after several hours operating by instinct from experience and training, fighting off fatigue, hunger and the visual shocks of all of that burning timber and expensive property going up in ragged flames and oily smoke.”

Matthias also fought the Oak Lake Fire in 1980 and the Five Mile Tower Fire of 1977, which he wrote a book about, “Monster Fire at Minong.”

Matthias collected stories of the Germann Road Fire from his fellow firefighters for the Wascott archives. Despite long hours and little food, they worked, some for more than 26 hours straight. They dealt with smoke, heat, wind shifts and, for one crew, an overheated clutch. Many returned the next day for another eight hours of fire duty.

“Our Wascott convoy really worked together great, and it was amazing what a group of fire fighters could accomplish when cooperating and selflessly helping one another put out smokes, haul fire hose over rough terrain, pump water, refill trucks, and patrol for dangerous areas that could flare up again,” wrote Matthias, a co-founder of the Wascott Volunteer Fire Department.

Not all the firefighters knew each other by name, said Douglas County Emergency Management Director Keith Kesler, but they all worked together to get the job done.

“It was a borderless fire,” Kesler said.

In the midst of the coordinated effort, a two-vehicle crash with injuries occurred at the intersection of County Highway N and State Highway 27 in Bayfield County. With Barnes crews already committed to fire efforts, other departments answered the call. The Wascott Fire Department provided extrication equipment, rigs from Hayward and an ambulance from Cable responded.

“One of the biggest things that stood out was how well prepared all the fire departments were and how safe they were all at doing whatever task was at hand,” Chmielecki said. “Other departments showed up here that I’ve never seen before. They all worked together, all had the same basic training.”

Wisconsin DNR’s final report on the Germann Road Fire pointed out the tremendous regional cooperative effort among local, state and federal agencies.

“The value of having long-established, strong relationships with partners and cooperators proved hugely beneficial,” according to the report. Management and extensive training proved “invaluable,” the report said and more aerial units — planes and helicopters — were used for fire suppression than ever before in Wisconsin history.

There were hiccups during the fire response, including a lack of fuel and hot food during the first night shift, long hours without enough rest and a decision by law enforcement authorities to allow evacuated residents back into their homes before the fire was totally contained, according to the report. The biggest success, the DNR noted, was the fact that no one was injured or killed.

Last week, Douglas County got the bill for its share of fire suppression costs, about $180,500. It has yet to be addressed by the county board. The fire snuck over the Bayfield County line, but not far. Bayfield’s bill is about $400.

The commercial logging company whose equipment sparked the blaze, Ray Duerr Logging, has been billed by the state for the total suppression costs — about $650,000. To date, they have not paid.

This spring’s late snows and recent rain seem to indicate there will be no repeat of such a fire. But that’s what people thought last year.

“This was the fire no one expected to happen,” Kesler said. Foot-deep snow had cancelled school in the area a week before the Germann Road Fire, according Chmielecki. But the wind and topography set the stage for the blaze.

“We have the largest pine barrens area in the state,” said Gallagher. Moisture disappears quickly in the sandy soil, the area’s pines are more flammable in the spring, and the spring sun carries as much energy as it does throughout the summer.

“With the sun, grass can dry in one hour,” Gallagher said. And it’s in those fine fuels like grass that forest fires start.

One thing that became apparent during the fire is the importance of being prepared.

“(Firefighter) Dave King noticed the places that were still standing after the fire were the ones that had the leaves, tree debris and brush cleaned up and the lawns mowed around the homes and garages,” Matthias wrote. “Some of the saved structures had the siding melted but were still standing — a testament to the ‘Fire Wise’ clean up messages. Homes that were built directly in the pine plantations and had brush, pine needles and trees right up to the side of the buildings were burned to the ground. He saw this over and over again.”

To date the county Zoning and Planning Office has issued 22 building permits on properties impacted by the May 2013 fire — 14 accessory buildings, three year-round dwellings, three seasonal dwellings and two additions.

One thing all homeowners should keep in mind, along with keeping a defensible space around their home, is access.

“Driveways are critical,” said Kesler, the Brule Fire Chief. “You’ve got to have access for fire trucks to get in to your house if you expect service.”

Keeping track of wind and fire danger is also key. The Five Mile Tower Fire of 1977 started when one man struck a match to cook some hot dogs. A gust of wind and a burning leaf touched off a fire that burned through 13,375 acres and destroyed 63 structures. It’s important to know current burning restrictions and keep an eye on weather changes.

“Be aware and be careful,” Gallagher said.

©2014 the Superior Telegram (Superior, Wis.)