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Sparks in the dark
Fighting nighttime fires poses unique challenges.
April 12, 1998 began early in central Wisconsin for DNR forestry personnel and local volunteer fire departments. Strong southerly winds, low humidity and warm temperatures combined with dead vegetation on the ground – typical spring conditions – resulting in extreme forest fire danger across the area.
DNR forestry personnel and volunteer fire departments were paged early that morning to the first forest fire call at the start of what turned out to be a very busy day in the Wisconsin Rapids DNR dispatch area. That first fire was started by careless outdoor burning, but was quickly extinguished, burning less than one acre.
That wasn't the case with other forest fires that started later that day. Careless outdoor burning, unextinguished debris piles or campfires, railroad activities and downed power lines ignited another 24 forest fires that burned 94 acres that day.
While night fires happen, they usually are less challenging to control than daytime fires because relative humidity tends to be higher and temperatures lower, resulting in less volatile fire behavior.
On this day, the daytime humidity remained low and winds gusted to nearly 30 miles per hour creating challenging nighttime fire conditions.
A Town of Rome police officer on patrol reported a forest fire at 1:33 a.m. The Town of Rome Fire Department responded. Minutes from the fire station, they discovered a fire burning several acres with many of the trees torching (completely consuming all needles on the tree).
The fire department called the Department of Natural Resources for help. Several heavy ground units responded and a single engine air tanker dropped a water and retardant mix. DNR sent heavy units including 800-gallon fire engines towing John Deere 450 tractor plows. These plows control fires by creating fire breaks (plow furrows) along the edge of a fire with hopes the fire will stop spreading when it reaches the break.
Firefighters worked to flank the fire, keeping it as narrow as possible, until fuel type or weather changed in their favor and can created a fire break that surrounded the fire or to used existing barriers to contain it.
The fire's glow was visible as soon as DNR units pulled out of the station in Wisconsin Rapids. Even before arriving at the scene, assistance was requested from the DNR station in Babcock and from Whiting where firefighters were returning from fighting another fire.
DNR initial attack units and heavy units responded from Friendship, Necedah and Wisconsin Dells along with fire department trucks and personnel from Wisconsin Rapids, Nekoosa and Big Flats. Rome Police Department staff and the Adams and Wood county sheriff's departments and Wood County Emergency Management provided traffic control and evacuated more than 75 residences.
As the fire roared, fuel types changed from young 10- to 15-foot red pine that completely torched to 45-foot red pine that burned mainly as a hot surface fire, consuming brush, grass and needle litter on the forest floor. The relative humidity continued to rise and winds decreased allowing firefighters to surround the fire with fire breaks to keep it from spreading. The fire breaks were then leveled into a drivable trail, allowing four-wheel-drive engines to patrol and extinguish hot spots with water.
Fire seriously threatened six buildings but there were no structural losses or significant human injuries. In the end, 30 DNR personnel, 14 DNR engines, eight DNR tractor plow units, 60 fire department members, 16 fire department engines, a 20-person University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point hand crew, numerous law enforcement personnel, county emergency management personnel and one DNR aircraft battled the fire.
The fire was controlled at 5:28 a.m. on April 13, after jumping two town roads and burning 158 acres of planted pine on industrial owned property. Light rain later that morning helped firefighters "mop-up" (extinguish all hot spots on the fire). Timber value damaged by the fire exceeded $65,000 while the cost of suppressing the fire totaled over $10,300.
No definite cause was found, though an intensive investigation was completed.
Ron Zalewski is a DNR forester and ranger.