Spring cleanup is always a busy time in the Northwoods as those with second homes and cabins make the trek northward to prepare for a summer of fun. For many, this will mean cleaning up trees and branches damaged by winter storms.
By Catherine Koele, DNR Wildfire Prevention Specialist
It’s a fact – wildfires do happen in Wisconsin! Spring is wildfire season in the Great Lakes region, and the third week of April is designated Wildfire Prevention Week (April 17-23, 2022). Visit the DNR’s Wildfire Dashboard to view real-time and historic wildfires throughout the areas where the DNR has forest fire protection responsibility. They may happen more often and closer to your backyard than you think!
“Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” A saying that rings true during spring in Wisconsin. While March signals the beginning of spring fire season for us, it can be interrupted by rainfall and snowstorms. Wet weather gives firefighters a chance to recharge and can be an opportunity for people to burn yard debris while it’s safer to do so.
The yard around your home may currently be filled with an assortment of fallen leaves, pine needles and branches. Recent ice storms in northern Wisconsin have contributed significantly to the volume of debris around our homes. If the recent widespread ice storms have damaged the trees on your property, take some time to assess the damage and realistically determine if you can handle the cleanup yourself or if it’s time to call in some professionals. Watch for damaged branches and bent trees that could fall. Prioritize your physical safety before attempting any cleanup activities.
You may now wonder what to do with all this debris leftover after winter and those recent ice storms. Some communities have brush collection services or a site where you can drop off leaves, pine needles and branches. Perhaps there’s enough debris on your property to warrant the rental of a brush chipper. Or, if your property is large enough, creating a brush pile away from buildings could serve as a shelter for wildlife. Larger pieces of hardwood could be cut for future use as firewood or campfire logs. If none of these alternatives works for your situation and your community allows for burning the material, timing your burn around periods of wet weather may be the safer choice.
Before you light that match, take the following precautions:
– Check for burning restrictions and permit requirements first. You can find this information on the DNR burning restrictions webpage or by calling your nearest DNR office or fire department. – Check the weather forecast. Delay burning if dry or windy weather is predicted. Be aware of your county’s fire danger forecast by calling 1-888-WIS-BURN or searching “burn” on the DNR website.
– Keep your piles small, with the area around the pile cleared of any burnable vegetation.
– Have an attached hose or other water source handy.
– Stay with the fire until you have completed the burn. Make sure it’s out before you leave by dousing the ashes with water and mixing it in. Then, just to be safe, add more water. If any unburned branches or larger pieces of wood remain unburned, check back frequently to make sure this material hasn’t reignited.
In Wisconsin, spring fire season typically lasts from snowmelt to “green up” (when the grasses are green and leaves are budding out again). Many parts of our state are still experiencing drought conditions, even coming out of winter. Fire officials will be suspending outdoor burning as needed when fire danger conditions become elevated.
Have you ever thought about getting paid to help protect and manage our forests? Finding your path to becoming a forester with wildland firefighting responsibilities starts with loving the outdoors and, of course, TREES! If this field interests you, it’s never too early to start planning your career.
Besides knowing about trees and forestry practices, you need to learn about other parts of the forest ecosystem. We wouldn’t have trees without soil, so some foresters study soil science. And we wouldn’t have soil without rocks and wind and rain and ice, so some study geology and meteorology. And we wouldn’t have big bucks if it weren’t for properly managed forests, so knowing about birds, insects and all kinds of animals is also important for foresters.
Spring Is The Most Critical Fire Season In Wisconsin
March through May, Wisconsin’s snow line recedes, winds and temperature increase and plentiful brown grasses, pine needles and leaf litter receptive to fire across the landscape. This combination is the perfect cocktail for wildfires to occur. Add people conducting spring clean-up around their property by burning yard debris to the mix, resulting in many wildfires.
Planning For The Weather
For most of us, planning for the weather on any day may mean dressing in layers or carrying an umbrella. Measuring the width of the brown band on a woolly bear caterpillar is considered by some to be more reliable than the TV meteorologist.
Planning for the weather takes on a whole new meaning for the men and women involved in wildfire management. They measure various aspects of weather to help determine the likelihood of a wildfire starting and predict how it will behave.
Research shows that both homes and their immediate surroundings play a critical role in a home surviving a wildfire. Your home’s building materials, design and landscape choices can increase risks of your home igniting during a wildfire. If a wildfire burns near your home, its intensity can be reduced or even stopped if “fuel” on your property is managed.
To prepare your home and the area around your home, start with the house and then move into the landscaping. The “home ignition zone” is your home and surroundings out 100-200 feet. Often, a person’s home ignition zone overlaps with their neighbor’s property. In those cases, it’s important to work together to reduce the shared wildfire risk.
Consider these wildfire risk reduction home and landscape guidelines to reduce or change the fuels in your home ignition zone.
State regulations allow individual households to burn small amounts of dry, household rubbish which includes only unrecyclable paper and cardboard, natural fibers, clean, untreated wood and similar materials, and small quantities of dry leaves and plant clippings unless prohibited by local ordinance.
However, fire officials caution that the open burning of many materials produce a variety of air pollutants that is unhealthy for your or your neighbors to inhale. In addition, debris burning is the number one cause of wildfires in Wisconsin, accounting for nearly 30% of the state’s wildfires each year.
If burning is the only option for yard waste, burning permits may be required to burn yard debris piles or for broadcast burning any time the ground is not entirely snow-covered. Permits ensure legal and responsible burning with minimal wildfire risk.
In the event of a wildfire in your area, firefighters may need to reach your home. If firefighters cannot safely access your home, they will find an alternative way to get to you that may take longer – and when fighting fire, every second counts.
Help Firefighters Reach You
You are the first line of defense when it comes to helping your home survive a wildfire. To enable firefighters and other emergency vehicles to locate and reach your residence quickly it’s important to establish a safe route with adequate driveway access.
Normally by this time of year, spring wildfire danger is over. Due to minimal precipitation, the danger isn’t over yet.
Since June 1, the DNR has responded to 106 wildfires in DNR protection areas. Fire danger remains elevated in many parts of the state, with much of the northern half of Wisconsin currently experiencing High to Very High fire danger.
DNR-issued burning permits will be suspended in some counties. As always, check for restrictions in your area daily after 11 a.m.
Be cautious with anything that could inadvertently start a wildfire. Ensure all tow chains are secured, avoid parking vehicles on dry grass, keep ATVs and UTVs on the trail and avoid any fireworks use. If you’re doing any woods work, avoid setting down hot chainsaws on dry grass or leaves. Never leave your campfire unattended and make sure it’s fully out – drown and stir until all material feels cool.
Over the last week, the DNR has responded to nearly 50 wildfires mainly caused by equipment and debris burning.
The most critical fire danger is now in northern Wisconsin, particularly in the northwest, where significant rainfall will be needed to improve the situation.
Low relative humidity is expected through this weekend, with the lowest across northern Wisconsin. This dry air, combined with warm temperatures, aid in the spread of wildfires. Winds are expected to remain light, which will be a large influence in helping fires that start to stay small.
Wisconsin DNR Burning Permits will be suspended as needed throughout the weekend. Before you burn any debris this weekend, check for any suspensions or restrictions at bit.ly/WiFireDanger.
Please exercise caution with anything that could start a wildfire. Operate equipment, including chainsaws, ATVs/UTVs, lawnmowers, etc., early in the morning or late in the day to avoid sparks when fire weather is most critical. Secure trailer chains to keep them from dragging. Keep campfires small and contained and delay having them until the evening hours.
Please remain alert and report fires early by calling 911.
May 14 marks the 8th anniversary of the Germann Road Fire in Douglas County that burned 7,442 acres and 100 buildings including 100 homes and cabins.