Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Firefighters fighting Germann Road fire. © DNR File

One of the largest wildfires to hit Wisconsin in over 33 years, the Germann Road Fire, consumed nearly 7,500 acres in the Towns of Gordon and Highland in Douglas County last May.
© DNR File

June 2014

One year after the Germann Road Fire

Reflecting on a quick and effective response.

Xin Wang

Areas of Douglas County look much different today than they did a year ago when the threat of wildfire became very real and the Germann Road Fire ignited.

When the emergency call rang May 14, 2013, the fire was so intense that it eventually burned enough acreage to earn the status as the largest forest fire to burn in Wisconsin since the 1980 Ekdall Church and Oak Lake fires that consumed more than 200 buildings.

This time, though, while 23 homes were lost and nearly 7,500 acres were scorched, 350 other buildings were saved and the fire, despite its size, was contained within 30 hours.

It's no coincidence or pure luck that there were no injuries or fatalities. DNR staff who worked on the Germann Road Fire agree that a well–kept multi–agency partnership and rapid and effective response by firefighting crews likely saved lives and homes.

"We have wonderful relationships with our partners," explains DNR Wildfire Prevention Specialist Catherine Koele, who worked in the fire command center in Madison. "Each partner had a unique role, which was critical to the fire suppression success story."

Forty fire departments, 34 cooperating agencies and other organizations assisted the Department of Natural Resources with evacuating people, protecting property and fighting the fire.

A perfect storm

Conditions on May 14 were prime for wildfires in northern Wisconsin. Dry foliage, warm temperatures and gusty winds prevailed in an area replete with natural fuel sources.

"The fire was burning in pine, which is very resinous and highly flammable," recalls Robert Manwell, DNR's South Central Public Affairs Manager who was called north to work on the Incident Management Team (IMT).

A few hours after the fire started, the wind direction made a dramatic shift. In its path was the incident command post located at the Barnes Ranger Station, which had to be moved to safer ground at the Gordon Fire Hall.

Supported by the National Weather Service (NWS), the department was able to forecast the weather conditions for the fire. The NWS's radar and satellites depicted the fire and smoke plume direction. At the fire, aviation resources coordinated tactics with DNR–led ground crews, who battled throughout the night with tractor plows, bulldozers and fire engines to contain the blaze.

The fire was managed by the DNR's Northwest District IMT, comprised of agency staff from across the district along with personnel from Burnett, Bayfield and Douglas counties. Incident Commander Larry Glodoski explains, "The overarching goal of the IMT was to contain the fire safely for all of those involved, including firefighters on the ground, aircraft and the citizens affected. During the course of the fire over 100 residents were evacuated from their homes by law enforcement and fire department personnel. Despite the high level of stress and urgency, no accidents or injuries were reported during the evacuations. The entire incident was handled in a very safe manner. This is a testament to the professionalism of those involved."

Local ties and training

"Local resources play a huge role in this kind of action," Manwell says. "We had local fire departments, sheriff's departments, police departments and town governments ready to assist. While our crews worked on the fire itself, the fire departments concentrated on saving structures that were in harm's way and local law enforcement knocked on doors evacuating people."

Other local partners helped with communication, temporary shelter, donation collections and more.

"Hundreds of firefighters came to help. Most of them were volunteers," recalls DNR Cooperative Fire Specialist Christopher Klahn.

There are about 860 fire departments in Wisconsin, 95 percent of which are staffed by volunteers. Training is key to their firefighting success.

Klahn leads the department's Cooperative Fire Program. His duties include leading a wildfire training program for fire departments.

The courses teach wildland firefighting skills, structural protection and how to best work with DNR's IMTs.

"Every area has some specialized courses too, depending on what the fire department can use," Klahn explains.

In the case of the Germann Road Fire, training in Douglas County took place in March, which prepared the crews for the massive battle they would face just two months later.

Klahn also manages the Forest Fire Protection Grant program, which provides funds on a 50–50 cash match basis to local fire departments and county and area fire organizations to purchase wildland fire suppression equipment, communication equipment, personal protective equipment and more. Almost $500,000 is annually allocated.

"We just updated the fire suppression agreement in 2012 and gained 150 additional fire departments as part of our grant program. That's a big step for us," Klahn says.

Partnerships

Resources from Michigan, Minnesota, the U.S. Forest Service and even Canada were called in. Working at the command center, Ralph Sheffer, DNR forest fire operations specialist, coordinated resources across the state and support the district forestry leaders whenever there was a request.

"When we have an incident, we can easily call other agencies, request resources and get them moving rather quickly," Sheffer says.

He adds that such smooth transitions are a result of regular coordination and long–term agreements with a larger web of partnerships outside the state.

Since 1989, Wisconsin has been part of the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact (GLFFC) with Michigan, Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba. GLFFC facilitates the sharing of ideas, technology, equipment, personnel and other resources across state and international boundaries. Similar compacts exist for the Northwest, Northeast and other regions of the United States.

More than 1.5 million acres of Wisconsin's Northwoods are covered by the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest, which is under the U.S. Forest Service's governance. The department thus has agreements, discussions and occasional training with USFS staff on fire prevention and suppression.

Wisconsin also belongs to the Eastern Area Coordination Center (EACC), which serves federal and state wildland fire agencies within the 20–state Eastern Area, sprawling from Minnesota to Missouri and connecting the Midwest with the East Coast. When needed, EACC deploys crews, aircraft, ground equipment, logistical support and more for members.

Social media

Success in the Germann Road Fire also came from strong communication with the public.

Working with her forestry fellows in the command center at the DNR headquarters in Madison, Koele's duty was to face a sea of inquiries from the worried public and media.

"I was getting calls from the media and showing up on TV to inform people of the current status of the fire," she recalls. "I probably did 50 interviews over the course of three days."

The stream of interviews spoke to the public's desire for direct access to the constantly updating stream of information the department was collecting. Koele and others turned to social media in order to provide the public with concise and immediate access to developing and breaking stories.

"For the first time we were really able to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter in a breaking news situation," Koele says. During the fire, the agency released 11 Facebook posts that attracted thousands of views in three days and 81 tweets in one week from real time updates about the fire status to heart–warming stories. Those timely and brief updates were well received.

"I went to the scene after the fire and talked to community members. Some said they were talking to their sons and daughters who read our posts. So they were able to know what was happening through social media," Koele says.

"We posted photos taken on the fire lines by firefighters and pilots, and when an area was safe, sent a fire information officer out with a camera and immediately uploaded those photos to the agency's website," recalls Manwell. "We were able to publish regular news updates from the incident command post via the Internet and provide real time interviews with reporters via cellphones. People from the area, absentee landowners and family members no longer living in the area appreciated it."

A Web page was developed detailing fire information, status, maps, news releases and pictures. DNR Division of Forestry Web Manager Scott Huelsman took charge of the Germann Road Fire Web page and says the goal was to create a template that could be used in future emergencies.

Preventive Firewise planning

In Wisconsin, people's actions or manmade objects account for 98 percent of wildfire ignitions. The risk is aggravated by the expanding population living close to wildland. From 2000 to 2010, Wisconsin gained 6 percent in its total population while the exurban or suburban areas were the biggest gainers, according to the University of Wisconsin–Extension.

As people move deeper into rural areas, they expand the wildland–urban interface (WUI) area where human properties are intermingled with undeveloped wildland, increasing the likelihood of wildfires and property loss. In Wisconsin, 337 cities, towns and villages have been designated as being at high or very high risk for wildfire, while 237 other municipalities are designated as "communities of concern."

The area in Douglas County where the Germann Road Fire burned includes numerous high risk and very high risk communities.

Being Firewise before a fire occurs is often a homeowner's best bet for seeing their home survive a fire.

Jolene Ackerman, DNR's wildland– urban interface coordinator, visited the area affected by the Germann Road Fire four days after the fire to conduct a structure survival assessment. She says that she was not surprised to find that some structures had been burned into ashes, while others nearby stood intact.

"This is largely because some properties had better Firewise characteristics than others," Ackerman explains.

A Firewise property is easy for emergency vehicles to get to when they have the chance. The area 30 feet around all buildings is maintained by keeping leaves and pine needles raked up and plants, shrubs and trees kept away from buildings. Ideally, there are no evergreens or firewood stacks within this area. Rain gutters are regularly cleaned out so there isn't a pile of fallen leaves that could be ignited by a flying ember. The areas under decks and open steps are kept free of debris. Firewise recommendations continue out to 100 feet, with the focus on removing dead trees and shrubs and working to minimize the density of evergreens.

Being Firewise also means having a family wildfire action plan that details what the family should do in case they need to evacuate when a wildfire is in their area.

Fire vehicles at work © DNR File
Wildland fire vehicles come in different sizes (types) depending upon how many gallons of water they hold and the gallons per minute (GPM) the pump can produce. This is a type-5 tractor plow.
© DNR File

In Wisconsin, eight homeowner associations are participating in the Firewise Community USA Recognition Program, which helps neighborhoods develop an action plan to focus their wildfire mitigation activities.

Wisconsin's WUI program also supports local efforts to create and implement Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs).

A CWPP focuses on providing wildfire education, emergency response, hazard mitigation, community preparedness and structure protection for homeowners. There are 15 CWPPs statewide, covering 32 communities at risk. Towns with a CWPP receive priority consideration for National Fire Plan grants.

The towns of Gordon, Highland, Wascott and the Village of Solon Springs are part of the Brule–St. Croix CWPP, which DNR WUI Specialist Martin Kasinskas initiated. His working area also includes the Barnes–Drummond CWPP and the Clam Lake CWPP in the northwest district.

"We are in one of the most hazardous wildfire areas in the state," Kasinskas says. "Fire planning is extremely important. That's what saved the structures in the Germann Road Fire. Without it, it's possible another 200 structures could have burned. A big challenge is to help people understand how simple Firewise practices actually are. Easy things like raking around their homes and yards and cleaning out rain gutters can prevent them from losing their homes in a wildfire."

Heroes step up

Chippewa Flowage Property Manager Neal Kephart shares another success story. He has known June Tielen for years. Tielen lives at the end of a dirt road in the Town of Highland and was asleep when the fire came near her home. She awoke to loud pounding on her door and someone shouting for her to get out. In minutes, Tielen and her cat were escorted from the house by a stranger. Tielen spent the night at the Drummond High School not knowing if her home had survived. The next day she learned that her home was safe, but she lost her shed, two tractors and lots of tools.

Tielen searched for the man she had come to call the "Angel"–— the man who safely got her out. When telling her story at the town hall the next Saturday morning, Tielen heard someone behind her say, "That was me, June."

She turned and saw Conservation Warden Lance Burns. She was speechless, crying and she hugged him.

"She told me afterword that Lance hugged her back just as hard," Kephart recalls.

Xin Wang studies journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Tools of the trade
DNR firefighters attack woodland blazes with a variety of essential gear.

When smoke rises from a Wisconsin forest, a highly motivated team of men and women is mobilized, fully prepared to battle a dangerous, fast–moving wildfire. Most of northern Wisconsin and large parts of the central forest region are designated by the Department of Natural Resources as "fire protection areas." In these regions, the department is the primary agency charged with protecting life, property and the forest itself. For more than eight decades, DNR wildfire crews have battled wildfires, some small, some large. Most are started by humans or man–made objects like power lines. The number one cause of wildfires in Wisconsin is related to debris burning. A very low percentage are acts of nature, as when lightning strikes.

Training and experience are paramount. Understanding how wildfires behave is a key part of this critical task. But when facing a fire that can grow from 300 acres to 3,000 acres in a matter of hours, and all the dangers and challenges this entails, DNR firefighters rely on a mix of high and low tech equipment to give them the upper hand.

Type–5 tractor plow
Fully–loaded weight: 12.5 tons

The type–5 tractor plow's primary purpose is to disrupt a fire's source of fuel (the ground vegetation lying in its path — trees, grasses, shrubs and other foliage on the surface, as well as tree roots that burn underground). The tractor, using a front blade and rear plow, acts like a large rototiller, severing roots in the ground and toppling standing trees. The front blade tears at the roots while the rear pushes the earth to either side. This creates a path of plowed earth known as a "fire line" or "mineral soil break." As the firefight progresses, fire lines are widened, allowing trucks to travel to strategic spots to deliver tools and water.

For the operators, the type–5 tractor plow comes with a sprinkler system that once activated, showers the nearby area with water to protect the driver from extreme temperatures and prevent damage to the machine. Each type–5 comes with "fire barrier curtains," which consist of heat– and flame resistant material that can be rolled down over the cockpit like a shade on a window, effectively stopping heat from reaching the operator.

Type–4 truck
Fully–loaded weight: 12.5 tons

The type–4 is a 300 horsepower truck used to haul type–5 tractor plows and deliver water to the fire line. Recently, many of the units in the Wisconsin fleet have been upgraded with all–wheel drive, enabling greater access to the fire across rough terrain. A type–4 carries 850 gallons of water used by firefighters on the ground to extinguish localized fires. The truck comes packed with tools and other gear for ground crews. There are currently more than 80 type–4 units located across the state. In the event of a large wildfire, such as the Germann Road Fire, "heavy units" consisting of a type–4 towing a type–5 tractor plow are deployed to staging locations near the fire. Here crews unload supplies and the tractor plows, and receive orders from incident command on where to attack the fire.

Fire–resistant clothing and Pulaski

Any firefighter near the fire line is required to wear flame–retardant clothing, often referred to by its commercial name "Nomex." Firefighters use a hand tool known as the "Pulaski" which joins the functions of an axe, for chopping, and a hoe, for digging into the ground and severing roots. The tool bears the name of a U.S. Forest Service ranger who refined it in 1911. Its primary purpose is for expanding and connecting fire lines in areas inaccessible to type–5 tractor plows and other tools because of rough terrain.

Eric Verbeten is a communications specialist with the DNR Office of Communications. He covers DNR science and research.