By: Joanne M. Haas/WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
WDNR Recreation Warden Mitch Groenier of Waukesha already was driving to Long Lake Campground in Fond du Lac County when Lt. Joe Jerich called late Tuesday afternoon.
Lt. Joe just got a call from the Fond du Lac County Sheriff's Department looking for help at the state campground that just had been ravaged by a tornado. WDNR Park Rangers Mega Sina and Olivia Boeck, both based at Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit, as well as WDNR Assistant Superintendent Joe Geisfeldt of Parks also were answering the call for emergency response.
"Mitch heard about the tornado warning on the radio and just started driving in that direction while that storm still was on the ground," Lt. Joe said.
Lt. Joe then called other WDNR wardens from the southeast area -- Steve Swiertz, Dan Nehls and Tony Young. All were dealing with flooded basements and more at their homes, courtesy of the massive storm system that dropped record rains and fueled massive floods across southern Wisconsin.
"They came to the campground to help despite having the flood at their homes," Lt. Joe said.
It was late in the late afternoon Tuesday, August 28, when a rapid-moving storm system dropped the tornado that left a path of destruction as it made a beeline right into the Kettle Moraine North Long Lake Campground -- home to 200 mostly wooded campsites.
Yes, wooded campsites. Good thing there were wardens certified to operate the chainsaws among those answering the call to help. "Yes," Lt. Joe said. "I checked."
Lt. Juan Gomez, who supervises wardens based in Sheboygan and Fond du Lac counties, also answered the call as did Warden Nick Miofsky and Recreation Warden Heather Gottschalk.
Warden Steve arrived first. Instead of waiting for the other wardens, he turned his efforts on the nearby community of Dundee - an unincorporated community in the town of Osceola - to check homes for any emergencies.
Not long after, more wardens arrived and spread out -- some with the chainsaws, others checking roads and areas for anyone in need. There were downed power lines on the highway and other debris on the roads to keep the traveling public away from - as well as downed trees everywhere.
"At least half of the campsites had trees on top of them," Lt. Joe said. "It was a lot of downed trees - a lot. The good thing was since it was a weekday, the campground was not as busy."
Together, wardens and rangers cleared debris and checked campsites while Parks Supt. Joe worked with the wardens manning chainsaws. They verified no one was injured. Then, they cleared a path with the chainsaws, so users and staff could get out safely. Teamwork!
"That took about four or five hours," Lt. Joe said of the chainsaw work, adding the WDNR park staff -- including Rangers Megan and Olivia and Supt. Joe -- now have the heavy lifting of site recovery after the initial emergency.
While the Fond du Lac area was handling the aftermath of the tornado and that storm late Tuesday afternoon, other parts of the storm system dumped record rainfalls in communities in southern and western Wisconsin where other wardens were busy with rescues, traffic control and more.
Tuesday night, wardens with Lt. Mike Green assisted the Sauk County Sheriff's Department with the overwhelming flood that flowed into La Valle. Wardens searched back roads and back waters for stranded people.
Back at Viola, Recreation Wardens Nick Webster and Jacob Holsclaw took their 17-foot flat bottom boat into the flooded Vernon County village Wednesday morning after the Tuesday night flood and rescued three more people. No injuries!
And on Thursday, Warden Kyle Ziembo answered a call from a Wautoma-area resident about a hummingbird hurt in the storms. Warden Kyle helped take the injured bird to a local vet in the area for transport to the Raptor Education Group Inc. (REGI), wildlife rehabilitators in Antigo.
The Tuesday tornado at Long Lake Campground was one of at least nine that day to hit eastern Wisconsin, as confirmed by the National Weather Service. The total could increase as surveys continue.
Governor Scott Walker toured areas where the storms struck in eastern Wisconsin Thursday, and urged all those affected to document their damages as much as possible.
Looking back on the Tuesday response at Long Lake Campground, Lt. Joe says hundreds of downed trees made for a real mess. But the teamwork of the WDNR wardens and park personnel resulted in the best result. No one was injured.
"If you're going to have a tornado on the ground, that's as good an outcome as you can get."
That and maybe having your basement miraculously dried while you were helping others.
If you have information regarding natural resource violations, you may confidentially report by calling or texting: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained staff relay report information to conservation wardens.