It’s Wildfire Season — Are You Ready?

Fire has been a valuable land management tool for generations, but historical fires in Wisconsin and recent fires in other parts of the country are a reminder of wildfire’s potential for destruction. To be safe from the ravages of fire takes both common sense and coordinated planning.

It is important to understand the difference between prescribed fire and wildfire. A prescribed fire is set within an established perimeter for defined management objectives under specific weather conditions. Prescribed fires are ignited with forethought and care under conditions that are conducive to controlled fire behavior. On the other hand, wildfires are unplanned and can occur during extreme weather with high winds and low humidities. Because wildfire is not confined to a safe perimeter and burns indiscriminately, it can destroy entire wood stands — everything from the canopy down to the ground cover.

Almost 2,000 Wisconsin wildfires last year

“In 2022 the Wisconsin DNR recorded 922 wildfires that burned 893 acres of land,” says Ron Schneider, DNR Cooperative Fire Specialist and Fire Department Liaison for all 842 fire departments in the state. “That does not include all fires in the state because there are areas (mostly the southern third of the state) where the DNR doesn’t have jurisdiction over outdoor burning.

The area not under DNR jurisdiction is managed by local fire departments. “They have a different reporting system, but we can estimate that they dealt with another thousand fires,” says Jolene Ackerman, Wildland Urban Interface Coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR.

What causes wildfires?

Both the Wisconsin DNR and local fire departments are gearing up right now because Wisconsin’s wildfire season has begun. “Most wildfires tend to happen in spring, and this coincides with people doing property cleanup work — burning leaves, brush, and land-clearing burns,” Ackerman says. “People associate spring with being wet. The ground may be wet. There may even be patches of snow in the woods, and people think it’s safe to burn yard debris or use burn barrels, but the reality is the surrounding landscape is dead grass, dead branches and leaves, and all of that material can be very flammable. Often, people aren’t careful to watch the weather before they burn. Wind gusts can blow embers or loft a burning leaf to other areas, causing spot fires that can rapidly become a wildfire.”

Though most wildfires are caused by debris burns, there are other factors — vehicles driving down the road dragging a trailer chain that heats up and throws a spark, trees falling on power lines, and other causes such as railroad train engines, ATVs riding in areas with dry grass, and unattended campfires.

This time of year we see an increase in fires from discarded ashes collected from wood-burning stoves. People who burn wood, whether in an outdoor wood boiler or an indoor wood stove, throw the cleaned out ashes outside this time of year not thinking it could cause a fire, because  they have been doing it all winter. But hot embers can be hiding in the ash. When dumped outdoors, a little bit of wind will uncover those embers and send them flying into areas with dead plant material, and then you have a wildfire.

“We advise people to burn their brush piles when there is snow on the ground,” says Schneider. “Usually it takes a few days for an ash pile to be safe. However there are times when ashes will stay hot even longer. It just takes a windy day to blow the ashes off the top of the pile. All of a sudden, it’s hot again and blows ashes into the woods or the grass and starts a fire.  Ashes have even been known to stay hot for weeks. I know of a huge pile of burned bark that stayed hot for two months, and in the spring it started a forest fire when the snow melted. Fires can start when someone burns a brush pile at night and leaves for work the next day. Meanwhile the snow melts, then the wind picks up and blows the ashes. We see that quite a bit.”

Because these fires are usually caused by people, they occur around developed areas. “They threaten homes, other buildings, personal property, and human lives,” says Ackerman. “Fortunately, we have a really robust system of partnerships to get to fires quickly and put them out. They seldom make the news because they don’t end up getting very large.”

 “We have access to helicopters from the Wisconsin Army National Guard and airplanes we have contracted,” says Schneider. “When we do get a fire, we try to do a quick attack to suppress it when it’s as small as possible. Fire departments are paged to all wildland fires and are often the first on the scene for initial fire attack.”

“Typically, fire departments have very little wildfire training,” says Schneider. “DNR staff members take a week-long class and then boil it down into an 8-hour course to share with local fire departments. We also offer a one- or two-hour refresher every spring.”

 Whoever causes a wildfire is responsible for the cost of putting it out,” Schneider noted. “The bills can get into many thousands of dollars, and if the person was burning without a permit, or at the wrong time of day, or where burning is not allowed, they can also receive a citation.” To those on the hook for the cost of putting out a wildfire, Schneider suggests, “Make sure you call your insurance company. They may pick up the cost of the fire suppression.”

How to prepare for wildfire

Wildland urban interface is a term used to describe the area where human development meets wild lands and the conflict that can result there. “In Wisconsin we use that term in our wildfire preparedness efforts for communities in that interface area,” says Ackerman.

“We work with local governments to create community wildfire protection plans and with neighborhoods like homeowner associations to become recognized Firewise USA sites ” says Ackerman. The program is modeled on Tree City USA. Promoting the understanding that a growing number of people are living where wildfires are possible, its motto is ‘residents reducing wildfire risks’.

      “We focus on public education and vegetation management,” says Ackerman. “We encourage local communities to create a communal brush site so people can take their brush there instead of burning it on their property, and we work with neighborhoods to coordinate curbside chipping days as an alternate to burning brush at home.”

“One of the most important times to consider with wildfire protection is during spring cleanup,” adds Schneider. “Green grass doesn’t easily burn. Rake dead vegetation away from your building. Clear the needles and leaves off the roof and out of rain gutters. People should consider Fire-wise landscaping. Many houses that have had damage from wildfires were too close to flammable fuels such as pine trees.”

There are many recommendations for people living in the wildland urban interface to protect their structures. The Wisconsin DNR has a helpful website called Preparing Your Property . This is essential reading for anyone living in an area of highly flammable vegetation. It provides a wildfire preparedness checklist for at-risk homes in the event of a wildfire.

The Wisconsin DNR also provides Fire Management Dashboards so you can see where wildfire and prescribed fires are actively occurring across the state.

By Denise Thornton

All Photos Courtesy of WI DNR