home is on fire along Sutfin Road east of Comminsky Road in
Highland Township, Wis. Crews from Wisconsin and Minnesota
were trying to control a rapidly growing wildfire in
northwestern Wisconsin that forced evacuations of the
sparsely populated area. Several structures were destroyed
in a mostly rural and wooded area east of Solon Springs as
the forest fire grew to 9 square miles, the Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources said. No injuries had been
DULUTH, Minn. —
When George Voyles moved to his dream retirement home in the woods
of Adams County, Wis., he happened to pick up a brochure on how to
defend rural property against wildfires.
So Voyles cut
down trees that hung over his house and cut down pine trees
nearby. He got rid of bushes and wood mulch landscaping around his
house. He cut back brush, and he moved the firewood pile far out
in his expanded yard of grass.
Cottonville fire erupted in May 2005, Voyles' house was right in
the path. Thirty of his neighbors' homes and cabins, more than 90
structures in all, were destroyed. The fire burned the trees
between Voyles' house and the road and even reduced his firewood
pile to ash.
But Voyles' house
was unscathed, and he's convinced that his efforts to create a
defensible space saved the day. He has since become the poster
child for Wisconsin fire experts trying to convince rural
landowners to clear trees, brush and other flammable stuff away
from their homes in the woods, the Duluth News Tribune reported
"If you are
going to move into the woods, learn how to live in the
woods," Voyles says in a fire prevention video.
With more people
building and buying their dream cabin or home in their favorite
corner of northern woods, more and more buildings are put in the
way of wildfires — fires like the 8,100-acre Germann Road blaze
that burned earlier this month in southern Douglas and Bayfield
counties, destroying 17 homes and cabins in just a few hours.
Even to the
untrained eye, as the Germann Road fire still smoldered, a pattern
was obvious: Of those cabins and homes that burned, many were
tucked tight into the forest. Of those nearby that still stood
when the smoke cleared, many had large, open yards.
Experts say that
pattern has emerged after wildfires worldwide.
"We went in
after the Cottonville fire and looked at which buildings burned
and which did not . and it matched the national data very well.
The houses that had cleared space were more likely to be standing
after the fire," Jolene Ackerman, wildland-urban interface
coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,
told the News Tribune.
interface is the place where the forest meets homes.
to visit Douglas and Bayfield counties to assess the damage from
the fire, especially to take note of which homes burned and which
didn't. While it might have been luck, or the hard work of
firefighters, that saved the houses, Ackerman said it's just as
likely the homes spared had a larger defensible space — more
grass and less woods near the building, fewer pine trees and
cleared of brush.
have dubbed it "Firewise," and a national program has
been developed to encourage property owners and entire communities
surrounded by woods to become Firewise-educated.
even teaching it in the schools up here. The fifth- and
sixth-graders are going to come out and grade some properties to
see if they have done their work," said Mike Prom, chief of
the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department in Minnesota's Cook
County and a promoter of property owners taking steps to defend
their own homes well before fires burn.
take it to the extreme and put crushed rock or concrete around
every home or cabin. But that's not why people want to live here.
They want the trees, they like the look of the forest up
close," Prom said. "The key is to finding a middle
ground that keeps that woodsy feel but makes it safe."
It's the last
thing any cabin owner or homeowner wants to hear when they move
into a rural area, but trees close to a cabin act as a magnet to
bring fire right up to the building, firefighting experts say.
In the Germann
Road fire area, the dominant tree species are jackpine, red pine
and scrub oak. Many home and cabin owners leave the trees standing
around their buildings to keep that woodsy feel
those are the most flammable tree species we have in the Great
Lakes region," Ackerman said. "They are the most
susceptible to wildfire under more conditions. They burn easy and
they burn fast and they can carry the fire right up to the
Fred Strand, DNR
wildlife manager in Douglas County, said the sandy soil left
behind by receding Glacial Lake Superior created a naturally drier
forest ecology. Through the centuries, those conditions have
favored species such as jackpine and scrub oak that tend to burn
every 10 to 50 years, far more often than wetter forest areas.
species regenerate naturally after a fire, Strand noted. Even
local wildlife, like sharp-tail grouse, have adapted to and thrive
amid frequent fires. Deer move out of the fire's way. Birds can
people have not adapted so well. This is a fire-prone area,
fire-vulnerable, and people have to realize that and take some
precautions," Strand said. "The fuels consumption level
of this fire (Germann Road) was very intense. If you didn't have
space between you and the fuels . there wasn't much that didn't
Gunflint fire chief who also owns Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, has
to deal with protecting hundreds of cabins in one of Minnesota's
most fire-prone and remote locations along the Canadian border.
Prom's department has worked through multiple large, destructive
fires in recent years, including the Ham Lake fire in May 2007
that burned across 76,000 acres and destroyed 163 structures on
both the Minnesota and Ontario sides of the border.
has gained notoriety for its efforts both at preventing buildings
from burning in wildfires and for saving them once the fire
starts. And he says it's absolutely essential that home and cabin
owners take steps beforehand to keep fires at bay.
cut down all the trees at my place. I'm an outfitter; I have a
business where the people who come up here want to see
trees," he said. "But I cut some of them down and
trimmed the ones close to the buildings up 6 or 8 feet so they
don't act like a ladder for the fire to climb up."
windstorm that downed trees along the Gunflint Trail followed by
major fires in 2005 and 2006 frightened many property owners into
clearing areas around their homes, Prom said, and those efforts
"absolutely saved a lot of buildings when Ham Lake
are critical, experts say. If the driveway isn't wide enough, and
if there's no place for fire trucks to turn around at the cabin
end of the trail, firefighters might not be able to help.
"If we can't
get in, we can't save your cabin. It's that simple," Prom
it's wide enough for a car, people have to realize some of our
trucks are 12 feet high. The trees have to be trimmed back to that
height. We have to be able to get in and out fast," Prom
With a fire
bearing down, firefighters must pick which buildings are
defendable, savable, and which buildings are probably doomed. They
also must decide whether going down a driveway and being unable to
retreat quickly might put their crew at risk.
"We call it
triage. . We have to make a decision on which places we try to
help or not," Prom said. "In the real deal, that's what
happens. Places that are inaccessible don't get help."
In the Germann
Road fire, firefighters were able to use foam retardant on some
homes before the fire came through — where they had enough room
to maneuver and get out before the fire came.
It may be more
work and expense than most rural landowners want to take on, but
installing large-scale sprinkler systems has been an incredibly
effective defense against wildfires. In the Ham Lake fire, Prom
says more than 50 structures were saved thanks to sprinklers
watering down the buildings and surrounding yard before the fire
Only one home
with an operational sprinkler burned in the Ham Lake fire, and
Prom said that's probably because it stopped working too soon
before the fire hit.
pumps are set up to run on propane; once started, they will run
without supervision long enough to keep the area wetter and
cooler. They pump water out of a nearby lake or river and sprinkle
a large area around the home. They dramatically raise the humidity
level in the area, which helps stop fire in its tracks.
Prom has a
sprinkler system that doused more than 3 acres of his property at
Saganaga Lake, an area hard hit by the Ham Lake fire. Those 3
acres and all the buildings on them were spared. His unsprinkled
acres burned, including trees and some out-buildings.
More than 300
sprinkler systems have been installed on properties in the
Gunflint Trail department's district, Prom noted, with more in the
just the cabin or lodge you can save, but the trees around
it," Prom said. "The sprinklers saved the feeling of the
place that makes people want to come here.