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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2005

Wisconsin's heated history

A look at fire through time in the Badger State

Jim Gobel

The first European settlements are built in southwest Wisconsin. Much of the timber is cut and burned to make room for agriculture.

Railroad construction begins. The first railroad into northern Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Central, is built in 1870.


A single wildfire runs from Amery to Iron River, a distance of 140 miles.

Peshtigo fire: The deadliest fire in Wisconsin's history. Between 1,200 and 1,500 lives are lost and more than 1.5 million acres burn.

Marshfield burns to the ground.

Comstock fire in Barron County destroys 64,000 acres, the entire village of Barronett and also burns structures in Shell Lake.

On July 27, the Phillips fire burns over 100,000 acres in Price County, destroying 400 homes and much of the downtown area. Thirteen people die trying to escape by swimming across the lake.

Forest fire control begins, marked by appointing 249 town fire wardens around the state. While they have authority to hire firefighters, they have no equipment.

First forest rangers hired. The forest protection headquarters is established at Trout Lake. From this point through the late 1920s organized protection spreads across the state as ranger stations and lookout towers are constructed.

National Fire Prevention Day inaugurated.

Jack Vilas pilots as the first forest fire patrol flight from Trout Lake. For the first time in Wisconsin's history, it is possible to detect fires from the air.

Spring fires burn out of control until late May when rains extinguish them. Rangers, equipped only with hand tools, are virtually helpless. Later that year, a new burning permit law is enacted, requiring citizens to obtain a written permit before setting any fires in a protection district when the ground is not snow-covered.

In the dust bowl era, severe droughts ravage the state. During this time about 2,950 fires burn 336,000 acres annually in Wisconsin.

One fire burns 120,000 acres of marshland. Demand for more adequate forest protection builds.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provides increased fire fighting and completes essential improvements in fire protection efforts by building standard lookout towers, fire lanes and bridges.

The tractor/plow is established as standard fire suppression equipment. Dramatically fewer large wildfires occur.

Chartered aircraft are used for detecting new fires and reconnaissance on fires.

Use of radios expands to aircraft, firefighters on the ground and lookout towers.

Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, dies fighting a grass fire between Portage and Baraboo on April 28.

Smokey Bear makes first public appearance in Wisconsin (Hurley).

On May 1, a running crown fire in Burnett County burns 17,560 acres, causing $201,889 damage.

Throughout the 1960s, an average of 1,880 fires burn 8,700 acres each year. Railroads are the leading cause of fire.

The entire state suffers a second year of severe drought. Nearly 49,000 acres burn in 1977. Over 170 structures are destroyed or damaged. Areas worst hit are Jackson, Washburn, Douglas and Wood counties.

Notable fires include:
Saratoga fire in Wisconsin Rapids, 6,159 acres and 90 buildings
Brockway fire, Black River Falls, 17,590 acres
Five-mile fire, Washburn and Douglas counties, 13,375 acres and 83 buildings

Over two days in April, the Ekdall Church fire in Burnett County and the Oak Lake fire in Washburn County burn over 16,000 acres and destroy more than 200 buildings.

The entire state suffers a second year of drought.

Notable fires include:
Deer Print fire, Douglas County, burns 817 acres.
Lyndon Station fire, Juneau County, burns 911 acres and three buildings.

Throughout the 1990s, an average of 1,600 fires burn 3,400 acres each year. Debris burning is the leading cause of forest fires.

State begins a trial program with a local agriculture pilot, Jim Stutesman, to use single engine air tankers for in-state fires.

The Crystal Lake fire in Marquette and Waushara counties burns 572 acres. Several buildings are destroyed and nearly 200 are threatened.

Jim Gobel is a DNR forestry technician in Spooner.