Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

30th anniversary of two of Wisconsin's worst wildfires

Weekly News Article Published: April 6, 2010 by the Central Office

Contact(s): Jim Bishop, DNR Northern Region Public Affairs Manager

GRANTSBURG - Scars on dead and living trees still remain as do the memories of the people who lost homes or who spent long days fighting two of the most devastating wildfires to ever hit northern Wisconsin. April 21 and 22, 2010, marks the 30th anniversary of the Ekdall Church and Oak Lake fire.

During those two days in 1980, fire burned more than 16,000 acres in northwestern Wisconsin. Tragically the fire also destroyed 118 homes and cabins and 114 garages and outbuildings. The toll could have been greater, but firefighters strived to save structures despite dry, warm, windy conditions that work against them.

Precipitation in northwestern Wisconsin had been average in 1978-79, and while 1980 started out relatively dry, 11 days prior to the fires the ground was completely snow covered.

On April 15 the snow was gone and a dry Hudson Bay high pressure system stagnated over the area causing warmer than normal temperatures and low humidity. Four days later all burning permits were suspended. The next day Emergency Fire Regulations, a nobody-burn-anything-anywhere outside policy, was implemented.

The Ekdall Church fire began around 12:20 p.m. on the western side of Burnett County, eight miles north of Grantsburg. Within minutes Department of Natural Resources and local fire department units were on the scene working on a fast moving 1.5 acre fire burning with intensity in scrub oak slash left over from a wood harvesting job.

Tractor plow units went quickly to work on each side of the fire, the "flanks." Shifting winds were a constant problem. Several times a 20-foot-wide fire line did not hold. Several times plow operators had to abandon their units and run to escape the flames.

By 3 p.m., the head of the fire was more than four miles from where it began and spreading at 1,000 to 1,600 acres an hour. By 7 p.m., the head of the fire reached the Kohler Peat area adjacent to the St. Croix River. This wetland stopped the forward spread of the fire and allowed firefighters to get a handle on the blaze and complete lines around the perimeter.

The fire ran nine miles in less than eight hours with a fire front that was 2.5 miles wide. While 73 homes, cabins, and outbuildings were destroyed in the blaze, another 65 buildings were saved. The cause of the Ekdall Church fire was found to be accidental.

The next morning of April 22 found only skeleton crews staffing DNR stations in Washburn and Burnett counties as a majority of resources were committed to mop-up of the Ekdall fire. At 10:30 a.m. a fire was reported in Siren. Units from Webster, Spooner, and the Ekdall Church fire were dispatched.

An hour later another fire was reported 11 miles west of Minong near Oak Lake. The remaining resources available were DNR tractor plow units from Minong and Gordon, and a local fire department. Due to the location of the fire and the severe conditions, a task force that had been assigned to the Siren fire including an Incident Commander (the person in charge of the suppression effort) and units from Douglas County were rerouted to Oak Lake.

On the way the commander ordered 17 DNR units and requested help from more Volunteer Fire Departments. With good reason.

An increase in the wind broke the fire out of its initial containment and kicked it into the jack pine tree tops. Before assistance could arrive the blaze out grew the capability of the fire department and plow unit.

Chet Peterson, now 80, of the Spooner Volunteer Fire Department was with his truck up in the area at the time putting out stumps from a smaller fire. With his three man crew they were the first on the scene. Looking back he recalls a "sad situation."

"Our job was to protect structures," Petersen said, I saw a wall of flame 300 feet high and when it hit Casey Lake it took one cabin after another. There was absolutely nothing we could do to save them -- it was going so hot and so fast. Later I was getting water from the Namekagon River and the fire jumped the river to the woods on the other side as if it wasn't even there."

During the next three hours the fire jumped the Namekagon River three times causing difficulty in moving equipment around to access the eastern side of the fire. Traffic jams of citizens evacuating the area, sightseers, and fire equipment added to the problems. Fire lines were difficult to hold.

Spot fires, from flaming sparks tossed high into the air, were documented more than a mile ahead of the fire. The wind kept smoke low to the ground making visibility, breathing, and evacuating citizens difficult. The heavy smoke turned day into night as far away as 30 miles. Street lights in Rice Lake came on in mid-afternoon.

By 3:30 p.m. the fire was six miles long and had a three mile blazing front as it hit the northwest side of Island Lake. This is where most of the structures were lost. To add to the complexity, the fire split into three sections when it reached Island Lake and Big Casey Lake.

Families evacuated could only hope for the best as the fire burned its way. One Sunfish Lake cabin owner from Eau Claire, Dave Carlson, was stunned to realize the smoke in his city was from the Oak Lake fire.

"Our family could see the haze and smell the smoke from the Oak Lake fire 90 miles away," Carlson said. "We contacted local friends and they said there would be no point in coming up to check on our cabin as the roads were all closed. After a restless night, our family went to the cabin and was alarmed as we drove past blackened earth and sticks of tree trunks where a green forest had stood. But, getting closer to our cabin's lane the land turned to the same lush green where a back hoe (tractor-plow unit) crew dug a trench stopping the fire from back burning and consuming more mature red pines and reaching our cabin and others on the southeast side of the lake. A lot of lake people, like us, and year-round residents are indebted to those firefighters who acted quickly and efficiently to save people and property."

At 6 o'clock, the fire hit County Highway E about 3.5 miles south of Island Lake. Although spot fires started south of the road, Hwy E blocked the fire. Plans were being made to evacuate Spooner. As evening wore on, the wind died down and firefighters completed lines along the flanks and within the cluster of lakes.

When the fire was declared controlled three days later, it had run 11 miles in just over six hours. Some 2,000 firefighters worked the fire, including 23 fire departments, 52 DNR fire trucks, 30 DNR tractor plow units and 52 federal, county and privately owned bulldozers. While 159 homes, cabins and outbuildings were lost in the fire, an estimated 254 were saved.

The cause of the Oak Lake fire was thought to be equipment related. Regardless of the causes of both fires it is important to note that no human lives were lost.

"With the erratic fire behavior, the danger to our firefighters were higher than we ever really knew," said Ed Forrester, retired DNR Forestry-Fire Control Supervisor, "Quite a number of times walls of fire kicked high by wind forced tractor-plow operators to make a run for it. We were fortunate no one was killed."

Forrester was the "commander" with overall responsibility for fire suppression in from 1980 to 2005 in Northwest Wisconsin.

Today the area around the Ekdall Church and Oak Lake the forest has regenerated to mostly jack pine trees, some 30 feet tall. A new hazardous situation has arisen for firefighters who keep a close watch on the forest and the human development within it. Residential and recreational properties have nearly doubled in number since 1980.

Despite improvements made in equipment and fire fighting tactics during the last 30 years, firefighters understand that many homes will be lost during a major wildfire. In areas where housing numbers are high, firefighters will simply be outnumbered and in great danger when an intense and fast-spreading wall of fire passes through.

Research shows that actions taken by homeowners to "Firewise" their property plays the largest role in their home surviving a wildfire. Firewise includes maintaining adequate access for fire trucks, removing leaves, twigs and dead grass from within 30 feet of buildings, on roofs and in rain gutters, and, keeping wood piles away from structures.

"What the structure owner does today in fire prevention actions will be worth far more than all the firefighter efforts in saving that home," Forrester said, "and taking precautions to avoid the start of any fires is everyone's responsibility."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jim Bishop (715) 635-4242