Wildfire danger continues across much of rural Wisconsin

Dan Hansen
Current dry conditions heighten the risk of wildfires in Wisconsin, posing a serious threat to public safety, property and our natural resources. Human activity causes 98% of all wildfires in Wisconsin.

MADISON – The drier soil conditions over the past few weeks have enabled  farmers in most regions of the state to prepare their fields and plant crops on a more normal spring schedule, unlike last year when planting was delayed several weeks due to unusually wet field conditions.

This spring, however, the drier conditions that have been more suitable for field work, also have increased the danger of wildfires. Most of the early fires have been in the southern two-thirds of the state.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources responded to 16 fires over the weekend, all of which were contained due to rapid fire suppression efforts. The leading causes of these fires were equipment, debris burning and improper ash disposal.

One of the fires included a 4-acre fire in Burnett County resulting from woodstove embers being tossed into the woods. Air tankers aided in the effort to reinforce containment lines provided by ground resources.

Previously there have been wildfires in Waupaca, Jackson, Juneau, Portage, Waushara, Vernon, Richland, Sauk and Columbia counties in the south, and Burnett and Bayfield counties in northwestern Wisconsin. An April fire burned 240 acres in Juneau County. 

Gusty winds, very low humidity, and little-to-no precipitation have led to critical fire weather conditions, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The threat is predicted to continue into next week with elevated fire danger across the state.

DNR warning

Concern by DNR officials prompted a recent press briefing from DNR Wildfire Prevention Specialist Catherine Koele, DNR Fire Suppression Specialist Eric Martin and DNR Cooperative Fire Specialist Ron Schneider.

Burning remains suspended including DNR-issued burning permits for debris piles, barrels and grass or wooded areas. At this time, there’s no clear indication of when the suspension will be lifted.

Fires can also burn on harvested crop fields. This fire, from a brush pile burn, was quickly extinguished by local firefighters after it had burned over a few acres of the cornfield.

“Right now, we’re waiting for vegetation to green up across the state,” said Koele. “We are seeing some progress on that especially in southern counties. And we’re moving resources from areas with less fire danger to higher-risk areas. We’ll continue to monitor conditions. Hopefully we won’t find ourselves in an extended drought situation..”

Martin stressed that the fire danger will likely continue until there’s an increase in rainfall. “Until we see greening of the understory in the woods, and we start to get the humidity up based on the plants being able to breathe, it’s really important statewide that we hold off a little bit longer and not burn so we can prevent these fires,” he said. Scattered showers earlier this week have not dampened the fire threat.

Fire control officials are concerned that the cooler temperatures and slightly lower winds might cause the public to become complacent as Wisconsin enters the peak of wildfire season. The main concern is the very low humidity levels (about 15-20%), coupled with tinder dry vegetation. “Fires under these circumstances can start easily and spread quickly,” cautioned Schneider.

He noted that the northern half of the state is entering a critical time for catastrophic fire. Of particular concern at this time are sandy soil, pine areas and the areas in Langlade and Oconto counties where the blowdown took place last July, leaving an abundance of fuel for a wildfire. “Fires in these locations can move quickly from the surface to the crowns of the trees, making fire suppression more challenging.”

On high alert

DNR fire crews continue preparing to respond quickly to any fire outbreak.

They are are continually pre-positioning equipment for rapid response, including four contract tanker planes. DNR also has access to the Wisconsin Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters with bucket capability.

To help keep Wisconsinites safe, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources continues to request that the public avoid outdoor burning, including limiting the use of campfires and off-road vehicles and to avoid disposing hot ashes from wood stoves in grass or wooded areas.

Koele stressed the need continuing public cooperation. “We are asking people again to be especially careful with any activities that could potentially lead to a wildland fire such as smoking, using chainsaws, dragging trailer chains, operating off-road vehicles or using other small engines that have the potential to throw sparks. Use extreme caution until the fire weather improves,” she said.