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Wildfire causes
Smokey Bear's 75th Birthday logo

During 2019, we salute Smokey Bear's efforts to prevent human-caused fires. Happy 75th birthday, Smokey!

Contact information
For more information, contact:
Catherine Koele
Forest fire prevention specialist
715-356-5211 x208

Wildfire causesOther common causes

Matches, cigarettes, railroads, and powerlines.

Arson

Arson is a crime capable of destroying property and threatening the lives of citizens as well as the firefighters that have to respond to and fight these fires. Arson fires also hurt the environment and the economy as they burn wildlife habitat, prime recreation areas and valuable natural resources.

Arson-caused wildfires can be prevented with the help of the general public. If you see something...say something. Citizen information is often critical in helping solve a crime. Immediately notify local law enforcement authorities, DNR office or call the arson hotline.

Information that helps investigators includes:

  • exact location and time of suspicious activity;
  • vehicle make, model, color and license plate number;
  • height and build of person, including hair color and length, type and color of clothing;
  • distinguishing characteristics such as facial hair, scars and tattoos; and
  • any unusual clothing or jewelry.

Wisconsin's arson hotline is sponsored by the Wisconsin Arson Insurance Council [exit DNR] and is available 24 hours a day. Callers can remain anonymous. The toll-free number is 1-800-362-3005. Arsonists will be prosecuted aggressively. If convicted, a person could pay as much as a $10,000 fine and face more than three years in prison. They also are held liable for the cost of suppression, damage to natural resources and any personal property that may be destroyed.

Power lines

Trees growing under and near power lines can be a hazardous combination. Dead or dying trees can easily fall on power lines near your home and cause sparks. On windy and dry days, typically in the spring, these sparks can quickly become a wildfire and threaten the safety of people living near the power line. In addition, downed power lines are also a major risk to emergency services.

Never attempt to extinguish a fire near power lines, no matter how small the fire. Even if the power line is on the ground, it may still be energized.

Power utilities and electric cooperatives have thousands of miles of right-of-ways in the state. Many run through forested areas where the utility keeps a clear right-of-way. It is the mutual benefit of the utilities and the public that power line rights-of-way be maintained to prevent both power outages and wildfires.

Trees outside of the right-of-way may also need to be removed if they are dead, dying or diseased and in danger of falling on the power line. Defective and diseased trees or limbs can fall and cause broken conductors or short circuits on power lines.

It is important for property owners to look around and report dead and dying trees or overhanging branches near power lines. Before cutting down a tree near electric lines, be sure to contact the utility company. Touching a tree limb in contact with an electric line is extremely hazardous and life-threatening.

Railroads

Historically railroads were a major cause of wildfires that started from improperly maintained brake shoes, spark arrestors and hot carbon expelled from the locomotive. Over the last several decades, the railroad industry has significantly improved fire prevention efforts to reduce railroad-caused fires. However, railroads still cause wildfires, especially on steep grades and near corners where heavy acceleration or braking occurs.

While the general public can not necessarily prevent these fires, they can report smoke along the tracks and provide a good description of where the smoke is seen. Due to railroad safety issues, it is not recommended for the public to investigate the exact location of the smoke, but it is better to provide the location of the nearest crossing for first responders. Every railroad crossing should have an Emergency Notification sign [exit DNR]. The sign is blue with white lettering and has an 800 number to call as well as a unique DOT crossing identification number to report that location. If the sign is missing or if in doubt, call 911.

Landowners that have property near the railroad right-of-way, especially in areas where fires have occurred in the past, can assist emergency services by making sure to maintain cleared access area to the railroad right-of-way. The quicker the first responders can get to the fire, the smaller the fire will be. In addition, creating or maintaining a fire break or defensible space between the railroad right of way and landowner property may also keep fires smaller and reduce the damage to property by both the fire and the suppression equipment needed to extinguish the fires.

Smoking

Smoking materials such as cigars, cigarettes and pipes, as well as the matches used to light these items all have the ability to start a wildfire if discarded in the outdoors if the fire danger is elevated. Smoking-caused fires can easily be prevented if materials are properly discarded in vehicles, ash trays or designed smoking trash receptacles. If smoking in the outdoors, consider smoking on pavement or gravel and crush smokes until they are out cold.

Under Emergency Burning Restrictions, burning of any combustible material outdoors, including smoking materials, is prohibited. These restrictions are implemented under abnormally dry conditions.

Last revised: Friday April 13 2018