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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2005


A powerful fire fighting tool

Natasha Kassulke

Chris Klahn, DNR cooperative fire specialist, was a forest ranger for 15 years and now works with 870 fire departments in Wisconsin planning to fight fires. He also serves as the assistant fire chief in Montello.


"A vast majority of Wisconsin fire departments are volunteer," Klahn says. "Members often have other jobs, and make time to fight fires in their communities, train and help with rescues after car accidents."

Rural fire departments are our first line of protection, Klahn says. Yet, staffing and equipment aren't growing at the pace that can keep up with the needs of communities spreading into the wildland-urban interface.

To meet these challenges, communities can apply for grants. The Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grant program is open to county fire associations and consists of a 50 percent cost share grant using federal funding.

The Forest Fire Protection (FFP) grant program is open to Wisconsin fire departments with wildfire suppression agreements with DNR. The program also provides a 50 percent cost share using state and federal funds.

"Fire suppression efforts statewide include training, community planning and zoning," Klahn says. "This includes writing mandatory driveway widths into zoning laws and including fire protection in subdivision planning."

The Spooner fire district along with DNR is asking homeowners to play a larger role in fire protection. The district consists of the City of Spooner and 11 townships. The 322-square-mile fire protection area is covered by a 35-person volunteer fire department.

"It's a large area and keeps us active," says Spooner Fire Chief Darren Vik.

Highly flammable pine is common in the area. Many homes are being built in clusters surrounded by pine plantations and at the woods' edge. Vik's concern is that his department won't have the vehicles or manpower necessary to make a stand against fires that threaten multiple homes. Some areas also have limited access and steep terrain.

Vik credits Ed Forrester, DNR area forestry supervisor in Barron County, and Bob Focht, Spooner fire ranger, with suggesting a door-to-door inspection program to get homeowners proactively working to minimize fire risks around their homes.

During his door-to-door visits, Vik explains that the property is located in an area that historically was subjected to periodic forest fires. The last catastrophic forest fire in the area occurred in 1980 and destroyed over 150 buildings. Since then, the number of structures built in the St. Croix River drainage basin has doubled. In that same period, the number of fire departments has remained the same and the number of DNR fire units available in the area has decreased.

Whether Vik finds people at home or not, he leaves them information on proper leaf burning, burn barrel requirements, emergency vehicle access and more.

Among the most common changes homeowners make after his inspections are widening driveways and creating turnaround spaces for fire fighting vehicle access. Other changes include pruning trees to a height of six to 10 feet above the ground, adding stone landscaping to create a defensible space, moving firewood piles away from homes and removing conifer bushes from around the home. Evergreen trees are generally much more flammable than deciduous trees and are not recommended within 30 feet of structures.

During the inspections, Vik also uses GPS (Global Positioning System) locate the main building on the property as well as map driveway dimensions. Under smoky conditions, these maps can be used to locate structures and driveways.

"This is a wonderful program," Vik says. "It's been very well accepted by homeowners who are not only protecting their homes but beautifying them in the process."

Marquette County has included fire prevention information in its comprehensive land use planning and Crystal Lake recently became Wisconsin's first recognized "firewise" community for its efforts to plan for the fire season. In April 2003, the northern Marquette County community was threatened by a fire started near the Lake of the Woods Campground. Because of the fire's intensity, 17 fire departments and DNR worked together to save many threatened structures. The fire was finally contained after 572 acres burned. The cause was a large brush fire that had not been fully extinguished.

After the fire, water backpacks were purchased, four fire sirens were sited around the lake and each property was posted with easily seen emergency fire numbers. Some homeowners in Crystal Lake hope these efforts will enhance property values and, perhaps, lower fire insurance rates.

Decisions on where to invest time, energy and funding are increasingly based on data and partnerships.

A research team from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to analyze and combine census and vegetation data to create a map that defines at-risk communities in the wildland-urban interface. Wildland-urban interface maps are available at:

SILVIS Lab – Forest & Wildlife Ecology, UW-Madison

Natasha Kassulke associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.