MADISON, Wis. - Following evaluation of how fires are reported and considering the age and condition of the state's network of fire towers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is implementing plans to remove the towers from service.
In addition, the department will begin making changes to emphasize electronic options for obtaining burn permits.
Over the past year, the DNR fire management program conducted a broad evaluation of its work including the use of fire lookout towers for fire reporting. As part of the effort, the program assessed the costs to maintain, repair or replace the 72 fire towers currently utilized throughout the state.
These fire towers were built mainly in the 1930s and '40s. The conclusion of this assessment is that the towers structurally are no longer safe for personnel to be in and the cost of replacement is prohibitive. The department has concluded that resources are best spent enhancing aerial detection.
"Today, well over 90 percent of the forest fires that occur in the state are reported by citizens, unlike the 1930s when fire towers were the primary means of forest fire detection," said Trent Marty, director of DNR's bureau of forest protection. "We recognize change is needed and there are opportunities to capitalize on the successes of our aviation program as well as advances in technology for forest fire detection."
In the early 1930s, DNR had 119 fire lookout towers throughout Wisconsin's wilderness, mostly in the northern half of the state. Towers are typically around 100 feet tall and made of steel with a 7-by-7 foot cab at the top.
Last year, the DNR staffed 60 fire lookout towers, many of which are located on private property with easement rights. Following its evaluation, Marty said DNR is now in the process of notifying private landowners and presenting options for the future of the towers and the sites.
Marty emphasized that removing the towers from service will not diminish DNR's commitment to fire protection in the state.
"We are proud of the strong history and tradition of our fire program including the contributions of our fire spotters stationed in these towers through the years," he said. "However, in recent years these towers have only been staffed on average of 17 days per year through use of seasonal employees on a limited call-in basis. Going forward, DNR fire control will rely solely on aircraft and citizen reporting for the detection of wildfires."
Growing emphasis on online option for burning permits
The fire management program also conducted an evaluation of burning permit issuance and the emergency fire warden workforce. As a result of its evaluation, DNR will gradually reduce the number of business-based emergency fire wardens over the next five years while maintaining key fire agency partners and emphasizing more convenient and effective customer service options. As collaboration with other fire agencies has strengthened over the years, the emergency fire wardens have primarily served to issue written DNR burning permits.
Marty said the department has documented strong public acceptance of the online and telephone burning permit application process and will move forward with an emphasis on these options. The program's evaluation also found that those who obtained burning permits electronically were more likely to check the daily burn restrictions prior to burning.
"The overall goal here is to keep the public and our fire fighters safe," Marty said. "We believe this change will improve the customer experience in obtaining a burning permit and help ensure that the public conducts permitted burns safely."
Currently, the DNR has more than 400 business-based emergency fire wardens. The program change will reduce the workforce by roughly one-third by the year 2020. Each county will still retain up to three business-based emergency fire wardens in addition to key agency partners (e.g. USDA Forest Service, local fire departments, municipal government offices, etc.).
Public involvement key to success
DNR appreciates the critical role of the public in fire safety and detection and encourages citizens to consider alternatives to burning debris. Wisconsin's traditional fire season occurs in spring, shortly after the snow melts and prior to vegetation greening-up. The number one cause of wildfires is related to debris burning. On average, over 4,000 wildfires occur each year.
The fastest and most convenient way to obtain burn permits is to go to the DNR homepage, DNR.wi.gov and enter keyword "burn permit." It only takes minutes and permits are free. Citizens are also reminded to report any smoke or fire by dialing 911 immediately.