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Wisconsin fire timeline
  • 2013 - One of the largest wildfires to hit Wisconsin in over 33 years, the Germann Road fire consumed 7,499 acres and destroyed 104 structures (23 of them residences) in the Towns of Gordon and Highland in Douglas County and the Town of Barnes in Bayfield County.
  • 2005 - The Cottonville Fire in Adams County burns 3,410 acres. Over 100 buildings were destroyed and at least 300 were threatened.
  • 2003 - The Crystal Lake Fire in Marquette and Waushara Counties burns 572 acres. Several buildings are destroyed and nearly 200 are threatened.
  • 1995 - State begins a trial program with a local agriculture pilot, Jim Stutesman, to use single engine air tankers for in-state fires.
  • 1990s - Throughout the 1990s, an average of 1,600 fires burn 3,400 acres each year. Debris burning is the leading cause of forest fires.
  • 1988 - The entire state suffers a second year of drought. Deer Print Fire (Douglas County) burns 817 acres. Lyndon Station Fire (Juneau County) burns 911 acres and three buildings.
  • 1982 - DNR firefighter Donald Eisberner is killed in the line of duty on April 24 at the Canoe Landing Fire in Eau Claire County.
  • 1980 - Over two days in April, the Ekdall Church Fire in Burnett County and the Oak Lake Fire in Washburn County burn over 16,000 acres and destroy more than 200 buildings.
  • 1977 - The entire state suffers a second year of severe drought and nearly 49,000 acres burn. Over 170 structures are destroyed or damaged. Areas worst hit are Jackson, Washburn, Douglas and Wood counties.
  • 1960s - Throughout the 1960s, an average of 1,880 fires burn 8,700 acres each year. Railroads are the leading cause of fire.
  • 1959 - On May 1, a running crown fire in Burnett County burns 17,560 acres, causing $201,889 damage.
  • 1950 - Smokey Bear makes first public appearance on August 3 at the Fireman’s Convention Parade in Hurley.
  • 1948 - Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Ahnanac, dies fighting a grass fire between Portage and Baraboo on April 28.
  • 1939 - Use of radios expands to aircraft, firefighters on the ground and lookout towers.
  • 1936 - Chartered aircraft are used for detecting new fires and reconnaissance on fires.
  • 1935 - The tractor/plow is established as standard fire suppression equipment. Dramatically fewer large wildfires occur.
  • 1933 - The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provides increased fire-fighting and completes essential improvements in fire protection efforts by building standard lookout towers, fire lanes and bridges.
  • 1930 - One fire burns 120,000 acres of marshland. Demand for more adequate forest protection builds.
  • 1930-34 - In the dust bowl era, severe droughts ravage the state. During this time about 2,950 fires burn 336,000 acres annually in Wisconsin.
  • 1925 - Spring fires burn out of control until late May when rains extinguish them. Rangers, equipped only with hand tools, are virtually helpless. Later that year, a new burning permit law is enacted, requiring citizens to obtain a written permit before setting any fires in a protection district when the ground is not snow-covered.
  • 1915 - Jack Vilas pilots the first forest fire patrol flight from Trout Lake. For the first time in Wisconsin's history, it is possible to detect fires from the air.
  • 1914 - National Fire Prevention Day inaugurated.
  • 1911 - First forest rangers hired. The forest protection headquarters is established at Trout Lake. From this point through the late 1920s, organized protection spreads across the state as ranger stations and lookout towers are constructed.
  • 1905 - Forest fire control begins, marked by appointing 249 town fire wardens around the state. While they have authority to hire firefighters, they have no equipment.
  • 1894 - On July 27, the Phillips Fire burns over 100,000 acres in Price County, destroying 400 homes and much of the downtown area. Thirteen people die trying to escape by swimming across the lake.
  • 1891 - Comstock Fire in Barron County destroys 64,000 acres, the entire village of Barronett and also burns structures in Shell Lake.
  • 1887 - Marshfield burns to the ground.
  • 1871 - Peshtigo Fire: The deadliest fire in Wisconsin's history. Between 1,200 and 1,500 lives are lost and more than 1.5 million acres burn.
  • 1854 - A single wildfire runs from Amery to Iron River, a distance of 140 miles.
  • 1850s through 1910 - Fueled by slash left from the intensive logging of the era, large catastrophic fires are a common annual occurrence.
  • 1850 - Railroad construction begins. The first railroad into northern Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Central is built in 1870.
  • 1820 - The first European settlements are built in southwest Wisconsin. Much of the timber is cut and burned to make room for agriculture.

Major fire events in Wisconsin history

100 years of fire patrol

Jack Vilas with Wisconsin Forestry Commission rangers at Trout Lake
Jack Vilas with Wisconsin Forestry Commission rangers at Trout Lake.

June 22, 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the first fire detection flight. Ever. Anywhere. So what’s the big deal? It’s the fact that it happened in a small Vilas County town nestled in the northwoods of Wisconsin! Aviation pioneer Jack Vilas, cousin of senator William Vilas, got the idea to use his plane to assist rangers at the Wisconsin Department of Forestry to spot fires from the air and catch them before they got too large. It was a great fit because Jack kept his seaplane at Trout Lake where the forestry division was based.

With the assistance of state forester E. M. Griffith, the two made the initial flight to 1600 feet where they spotted smoke about six miles in the distance. Upon landing, the "crew" immediately reported the smoke’s direction and location to the rangers. Throughout the summer of 1915, Jack flew many flights, accepting no money and flying only "for the thanks." By January 1916, flight detection was catching on across the continent and by 1917 the United States Forest Service implemented what they called "the Wisconsin Plan" for fire detection. This plan soon became a vital tool in fighting wildfires in many forested countries and 100 years later aircraft continue to be used to detect wildfires in Wisconsin.

2013 - Germann Road Fire

White pine torching with flame lengths reported to be 20-30 feet high.The Germann Road Fire consumed 7,499 acres and destroyed 104 structures (23 of them residences) in the Towns of Gordon and Highland in Douglas County and the Town of Barnes in Bayfield County. An estimated 350 structures were saved due to fire control efforts. The fire began around 2:45 p.m. on May 14, 2013, burning a swath nearly 10 miles long and a mile and a half wide before being declared 100 percent contained on May 15 at 9 p.m. The fire was started unintentionally from a logging crew harvesting  timber on industrial timber lands. Learn more about the Germann Road Fire.

2005 - Cottonville Fire

This wildfire began on May 5 in northern Adams County. The fire rapidly spread through grass, needles and brush to the tops of the pine trees close by. Utilized resourced included 38 tractor plows, 25 Forest Rangers with Type 7 4x4s, three low ground units, six heavy dozers and almost 200 DNR personnel to control and eventually suppress the wildfire. Air resources cooled the flanks for ground crews and dropped water and fire retardant on structures. The fire was finally contained after 3,410 acres had burned; 9 year-round residences, 21 seasonal homes and at least 60 outbuildings were completely destroyed, but an estimated 300 buildings were saved.

2005 - Cecil-Underhill Fire

The Cecil-Underhill Fire burned 74 acres of privately owned pine plantations and oak woodlands in Shawano and Oconto Counties on May 5. Although numerous nearby homes were threatened, none were damaged or lost due to the combined efforts of almost 100 firefighters from various fire departments, local and state agencies including DNR and Menominee Tribal Enterprises. The fire originated from an escaped debris burn in the cooperative protection area of Shawano County.

2005 - Emmons Creek Complex Fires

On April 3, three separate wildfires were started by a suspected arsonist in Portage County within the boundaries of the Emmons Creek State Fishery Area. Two of the fires burned together into the Fountain Fire (70.3 acres) and the other fire of the three, the 3rd Road Fire, accounted for 72.4 acres. The fires were set in the middle of the afternoon and spotted just as the Waupaca Fire patrol plane lifted off from the Waupaca airport. The fires threatened four structures, but thanks to the quick reactions of tractor plow operators and firefighters, all were saved. The total acreage burned by the Emmons Creek Complex Fires was 143 acres.

2004 - Bay View Fire

The Bay View Fire occurred in Oconto County on May 4 and burned 215 acres. The fire originated from a controlled burn within the city limits of the city of Oconto. Two tractor plows, two ATVs, DNR air attack, Oconto and Pensaukee fire departments were utilized to control the fire. Crews suppressed the fire in two hours. Afterwards, the responsible party was billed $1,487.90 in suppression costs.

2004 - Pansey Landing Fire

The Pansey Landing Fire occurred in Burnett County on April 15, burned for more than half a mile and consumed 71 acres. It initiated on private and county forest lands and burned across the properties of two other private landowners before DNR, Webb Lake and Danbury fire departments could stop and control the wildland fire. The suppression forces saved one structure and a valuable red pine plantation utilizing 35 firefighters and 22 pieces of firefighting equipment at a cost of $6,535.

2004 - Kendall Marsh Fire

The Kendall Marsh Fire occurred in Marquette County on April 4 and burned 45 acres. The fire was started by a local citizen burning debris in a barrel. Complete suppression was done by DNR, Menominee Tribal Enterprises, Montello and Princeton fire departments. It took one and one half hours to contain this fire. The responsible party was billed $1,865 in suppression costs and issued a $156.20 citation for burning without a permit.

2003 - Crystal Lake Fire

On April 14, a wildfire began in northern Marquette County near the Lake of the Woods campground. Between 50 and 100 camper trailers in the campground and 24 homes and outbuildings in the area were directly threatened by the fire but ultimately saved with the help of 17 local fire department engines and tankers, DNR engines, bulldozers, aircraft and air tankers, and private bulldozers. The fire eventually burned 572 acres, and was determined to have been caused by debris burning.

1989 – White River Marsh Fire

The White River Marsh wildlife area is a 12,000 acre property located in Green Lake and Marquette counties. A man hunting on the property filled a metal coffee can with charcoal to have in his tree stand to keep warm. On November 20 (the Monday of deer season) he wasn’t hunting and the winds were so strong it blew the tree over with the tree stand in it--which dumped the charcoal--resulting in a wildfire burning 4,261 acres.

1980 - Ekdall Church Fire

The Ekdall Church Fire began on April 21 and ran 9 miles in less than eight hours. At its widest point, the fire front was 2.5 miles wide. Fifteen DNR tractor plow units, seven fire departments, 27 private, county and National Guard bull dozers as well as scores of volunteers and cooperators from other county, state and federal agencies were utilized in containment of the fire. While 73 homes, cabins and outbuildings were destroyed in the blaze, another 65 buildings were saved as a result of firefighter actions. The cause of the Ekdall Church Fire was determined to be accidental in nature.

1980 - Oak Lake Fire

Over 2,000 firefighters worked the Oak Lake Fire, which began on April 22 and included 23 fire departments, 52 DNR fire trucks, 30 DNR tractor plow units and 52 federal, county and privately owned bulldozers. While 159 structures (homes, cabins and outbuildings) were lost in the fire, an estimated 254 were saved as a direct result of firefighter actions. While a cause was never proved for the Oak Lake Fire, it was thought to most likely be equipment related. Note that the Ekdall Church Fire and Oak Lake Fire burned over 16,000 acres in northwestern Wisconsin.

1977 - Saratoga Fire

Fifteen tractor plows worked on the Saratoga FireFifteen tractor plows, 18 bulldozers, 12 fire departments and about 100 men and women worked on the fire, which began on April 27 and burned a total 6,159 acres. Five homes, one house trailer, 10 barns and 84 out buildings were destroyed, but approximately 300 buildings were saved. Total damages were over a million dollars.

1977 - Brockway Fire

On the same day as the Saratoga Fire, a westbound Chicago and Northwestern train began setting fires three to four miles east of Black River Falls and continued igniting areas along the track almost all the way to the city before the train was finally stopped. Calls were immediately sent out to the adjacent areas for additional equipment, but because of the Saratoga Fire, these fires were short on tractor plows. The series of fires ultimately combined together to form one large fire, named Brockway. Later in the afternoon, an illegal cooking fire escaped and joined the railroad fires. The Brockway Fire was finally controlled after burning 17,590 acres with damages over $1,400,000, including the loss of 14 homes.

1977 - Airport Fire

The mop-up of the Saratoga and Brockway Fires was progressing rather well on the early afternoon of April 30 when two more fires broke out in the Black River Falls area. One fire started when a chain saw exploded in an area of heavy slash. Windy conditions drove this fire fast towards the Village of Brockway and Black River Falls, causing 1,500 people to evacuate. About 75 minutes later another fire, believed to have been intentionally set as a backfire on private property, started alongside the first fire. These fires ended up burning together, threatening to destroy dozens of homes in its path. With the assistance of 63 fire departments, no buildings were lost after the fire consumed 3,037 acres.

1977 - Five Mile Tower Fire

The Five Mile Tower fire burns in young pine.Around the same time the Airport Fire started, a family was camping just west of Minong in an area surrounded by jack pine when a spark blew out of their campfire. This fire would eventually burn 13,375 acres of pine forest and was about 15 miles long at its longest point. Embers were reported to have flown over a mile ahead of the fire, causing many additional "spot" fires. The fire was controlled after 83 buildings were destroyed, but over 300 buildings survived the fire.

Last revised: Thursday July 30 2015