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Old concrete structure springs back to life

EAU CLAIRE — Even though it is part of the 60 acres he bought 31 years ago just south of the city, Doug Carlson didn’t realize an old concrete structure housing Beckey Spring was on public right of way on his property.

“We didn’t even notice that old overgrown thing down there,” Carlson said.

Then about eight years ago, Carlson’s wife Mary, a genealogist, dug up some history about the structure.

“She knows how to go find information,” Doug Carlson said. “She dug up the history. My goodness there is history there.”

A 1923 article in the Leader-Telegram, which documented the Eau Claire County Board spending $300 to build a spring house to preserve Beckey Spring, is what got the couple started to learn more.

“Once we discovered there was such a rich history, and how integral it was back in the day, it just piqued our interest,” Carlson said.

That research prompted Carlson to decide two years ago to refurbish the worn down structure at Beckey Spring.

“I was basically motivated by capturing history and trying to restore history,” he said of the spring, which is on Highway 37, a mile south of Interstate 94.

As a guide to what the spring house looked like in its heyday, Carlson used a 1936 photo he saw on Facebook from the Mondovi Historical Society.

Many people call the hillside spring Silver Spring.

But the Carlsons’ research showed the spring, which has been used since about 1870, was first known as Beckey Spring.

Loggers who floated logs down the Chippewa River in the 1800s often walked past the spring and got fresh water from the ground. James Beckey was a well-known timber cruiser during that time, so the spring became known as Beckey Spring, Carlson said.

The County Board built the spring house in 1923 to make it easier for passersby to get the fresh, cold water, he said.

When the spring house was built, it was on a county road. The road is now Highway 37, making the spring house now owned by the state because it is located in the highway’s right of way.

Carlson said the spring releases about 4 gallons of water per minute. Anecdotal evidence he has found from both the 1940s and 1990s supports his theory that the water flow rate has never changed.

“It was consistent with my measurement of 4 gallons a minute,” he said. “I am guessing it has come out at that rate forever.”

The natural spring runs from the spring house through a culvert under Highway 37. The water then goes through the ditch to Taylor Creek, which drains into the Chippewa River, Carlson said.

Carlson, 72, got a permit from the state and began his restoration project of the spring house in April 2019.

Carlson started by cleaning up the surrounding grounds of dirt, debris and moss.

“There was 100 years of dirt washed down the hillside. It was buried,” he said of the spring house.

With the assistance of a chain saw and three helpers, Carlson hauled away 15 trailer loads of brush and trees.

Carlson then began to work on the spring house itself. He sand blasted the whole building. He filled in a few holes and cracks with cement.

“Otherwise, it is all original,” Carlson said. “It is in pretty good shape considering it is 100-year-old cement.”

The only thing that is new is the door to the spring house. “It is not the original door. There has been at least four different doors on there” over the years, he said.

A local excavator widened the area from the highway to the spring house and added gravel to allow visitors to pull their vehicles further off of the shoulder.

Carlson then painted the building and added lettering, which was completed on Sept. 4.

The state put a sign on the spring house in the 1950s indicating that the water was unsafe for human consumption.

“I replicated that sign. How dangerous is it?” Carlson said, referring to the spring water. “I don’t know.”

As he worked on the spring house, passing motorists would wave and honk their horns. Now that the project is completed, Carlson said the spring house gets occasional visitors.

By the end of October, the Carlsons hope to complete a 50-page document on the history of the spring, which they plan to release to the Chippewa Valley Museum in Carson Park and UW-Eau Claire.

The special collections and archives department of the university’s McIntyre Library plans to make the document available online, Carlson said.

Winds a worry as death toll reaches 33 from West Coast fires

BEAVERCREEK, Ore. — Nearly all the dozens of people reported missing after a devastating blaze in southern Oregon have been accounted for, authorities said over the weekend as crews battled wildfires that have killed at least 33 from California to Washington state.

The flames up and down the West Coast have destroyed neighborhoods, leaving nothing but charred rubble and burned-out cars, forced tens of thousands to flee and cast a shroud of smoke that has given Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, some of the worst air quality in the world.

The smoke filled the air with an acrid metallic smell like pennies and spread to nearby states. While making it difficult to breathe, it helped firefighters by blocking the sun and turning the weather cooler as they tried to get a handle on the blazes.

But warnings of low moisture and strong winds that could fan the flames added urgency to the battle. The so-called red flag warnings stretched from hard-hit southern Oregon to Northern California and extended through Monday evening.

Lexi Soulios, her husband and son were afraid they would have to evacuate for a second time because of the weather. They left their small southern Oregon town of Talent last week when they saw a “big, huge flow of dark smoke coming up,” then went past roadblocks Friday to pick through the charred ruins of their home.

While they are staying farther south in Ashland, known for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she said by text message that the forecast may mean they could be on the move again.

“So this isn’t over yet but we just had the car checked so we feel prepared,” Lexi Soulios wrote.

Authorities last week reported as many as 50 people could be missing after a wildfire in the Ashland area. But the Jackson County Sheriff’s office said late Saturday that four people had died in the blaze and that the number of missing was down to one.

At least 10 people have been killed in the past week throughout Oregon. Officials have said more people are missing from other fires, and the number of fatalities is likely to rise, though they have not said how high the toll could go. Twenty-two people have died in California, and one person has been killed in Washington state.

Barbara Rose Bettison, 25, left her farm among the trees and fields of Eagle Creek, outside Portland, when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door Tuesday. They drove away on a road that became an ominous dividing line, with blue skies on one side and the other filled with black and brown smoke.

She took shelter at an Elks Lodge near Portland, where evacuees wrapped themselves in blankets and set up tents out back.

“It’s terrifying. We’ve never had any form of natural disaster,” she said.

Bettison, a UPS driver, was able to get out with her chickens, rabbits and cats. She hasn’t been back, but neighbors said it is so smoky they can’t see their hands in front of their faces.

“I’m hoping there has not been too much damage because it would break my heart,” she said. “As long as we’re still standing, I think we’ll be OK.”

The Democratic governors of all three states have said the fires are a consequence of climate change, taking aim at President Donald Trump ahead of his visit Monday to California for a fire briefing.

“And it is maddening right now that, when we have this cosmic challenge to our communities, with the entire West Coast of the United States on fire, to have a president to deny that these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

At a rally in Nevada, Trump blamed inadequate forest management, which White House adviser Peter Navarro echoed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying that for many years in California, “particularly because of budget cutbacks, there was no inclination to manage our forests.”

Firefighter Steve McAdoo found himself running from one blaze to another in Oregon for six days, seeing buildings burn and trees light up like candles.

“We lost track of time because you can’t see the sun and you’ve been up for so many days,” he said. “Forty-eight to 72 hours nonstop, you feel like you’re in a dream.”

As he and his team battled the blazes, he worried about his wife and daughter at home just miles away. They evacuated safely, but at times he could communicate with them only in one-word text messages: “busy.”

McAdoo and other firefighters got their first real break Sunday to take showers, shave and check their equipment. And though it’s a faint shadow of its usual self, he can finally see the sun.

“It’s nice today to at least see the dot in the sky,” he said.

Health Department: 1 in 10 EC County coronavirus tests coming back positive

EAU CLAIRE — The week local K-12 schools and UW-Eau Claire reopened for classes, about 1 in 10 coronavirus tests in Eau Claire County came back positive for COVID-19.

The county’s 9.9% test-positivity rate for Sept. 1 through Sept. 8 is the highest it’s been since the first week of July, when the weekly rate was recorded at 14.5%, according to Eau Claire City-County Health Department numbers.

The test-positivity rate is the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive. Health officials have pointed to the rate as a more accurate way to calculate how the virus is spreading rather than simply counting the number of new cases.

Eau Claire County’s test-positivity rate sat consistently between 6% and 7% in August, according to Health Department reports.

The county’s goal is a rate of 5% or lower, according to the department.

People who have even mild symptoms that could be COVID-19 should get tested, said Health Department Director Lieske Giese at a news conference Wednesday.

“This is a respiratory virus, a virus that typically in summer and early fall months, we’d see our lowest levels across the state and definitely in this community,” Giese said Wednesday. “It is noteworthy we’re seeing a respiratory virus with these types of numbers in our community, and it’s something for us to pay close attention to.”

It’s another sign that the virus is spreading more quickly in Eau Claire County than it did in August: The county added almost 200 new cases in the first week of September. The state also doesn’t seem to expect the county’s case increase to level off quickly, classifying Eau Claire County as having a “growing trajectory level” of the virus.

The county tested a rough average of 160 people per day in the first week of September, according to new weekly metrics the Health Department released Thursday.

The portion of Eau Claire County residents who don’t know where they contracted COVID-19 also went up slightly last week — 39%, compared to 35% in the last week of August. (The rest of the cases said they had contact with someone who already had the virus.)

The Health Department acknowledged last week that the county’s virus data haven’t improved.

“None of the local metrics showed any improvement with most showing a significant decline,” the Health Department wrote in a weekly situation report Thursday. While the “abruptness of the increases in cases and positivity rate may be somewhat surprising,” the department said it was anticipating more cases as schools and universities reopened.

Despite the increase in cases, the Health Department doesn’t anticipate “any imminent threat” to local hospitals’ resources.

The case increase is concentrated in the younger demographic — over half the county’s cases the first week of September were connected to UW-Eau Claire, Giese said Wednesday.

The Health Department said in Thursday’s report: “Generally speaking, if the current trends in age distribution of cases continue, it is anticipated that the health care response metrics will remain stable, as the hospitalization and fatality rate have been notably lower in the younger demographics than they have among the older population.”

But that also means contact tracing and isolating students from the elderly or immunosuppressed is “critical,” the department added.

New cases

Another 38 Eau Claire County residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, beating the previous single-day record set Wednesday of 37 new cases in a single day.

As of Sunday, the county has 1,232 positive cases, with six deaths, according to the Health Department.

Wisconsin COVID statistics