This weekend saw the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources suspend all open burning permits due to fire risks. It was a beautiful day. Warm. Sunny. Breezy. And, given the lack of moisture, a real risk for wildfires.
The entire state had at least a high risk of fire danger, and all but four counties were in the very high category. Much of southwestern Wisconsin was at extreme risk.
Fortunately, the state got out of the weekend without the kind of massive fire that can start in those conditions. And things have improved. Most of the state was at low risk Monday, though far northwestern Wisconsin remains at high risk.
There’s good reason to be on guard in Wisconsin. The state counts more than 4,000 wildfires since 2016 and more than 7,000 acres burned. The past week alone added 55 to the total. That’s about 10% of the fires so far this year.
While nature is responsible for some fires due to things like lightning strikes, such fires account for a fairly small part of the total. The DNR says 98% of the state’s wildfires “are caused by people.” The good news is that such a statistic also means they can be controlled. If we’re starting them, adjusting our behavior should knock the numbers down considerably.
It’s very rare that someone intends to start a destructive fire. It happens, of course. But it’s far more common to have a brush pile burn get out of hand or a spark from a campfire get loose. So, as with many accidents, staying aware is a big part of ensuring fires don’t have the chance to break out.
That awareness begins with getting proper permits. It’s not hard. They’re free, and you can get one almost instantly through the DNR’s website (dnr.wi.gov). You can also have one mailed to you by calling the DNR’s hotline.
The DNR also makes it easy to find out whether your planned burn poses risk beyond what is normal. Check out the conditions in your area before burning. Again, the information is easily accessible on the DNR’s website.
Permits allow open burning, but still constrain the size of the fire, when you can burn, and what materials can be burned. Know those guidelines before you start.
Mitigating the risk also means having a way to put out or contain the fire quickly. In many cases a nearby garden hose can do the job just fine. So can a fire extinguisher. However you do it, have some way to put the fire out if it begins to move outside the items you want to burn at the time.
While staying aware of conditions and having a way to respond if the fire begins to grow beyond a manageable size are starting points, there’s one crucial thing that has to be done. Under no circumstances should any open fire be left unattended. Fires can spread quickly, and not keeping an eye on them is an invitation to trouble. Watch. Be vigilant. It may not guarantee a risk-free burn, but monitoring the fire at all times is always the first line of defense.
Wisconsin isn’t necessarily the first place you think about having wildfires, but they do happen. We certainly have the materials for it, particularly in the Northwoods. No, they’re not the scale of what you see each summer in California or other Western states, but that’s not going to be much comfort if the fire destroys your property.
After a damp end to the weekend, things will dry out again for the Chippewa Valley for a few days. But it looks like we’ll get a hand from nature by the end of the week, with a chance of showers moving in from Friday night on.
Bonfires and campfires can be fun activities. Burning off dead brush and fallen limbs can be an efficient way to remove potential hazards. Just make sure you pay close attention when you begin any of those activities, for your safety and that of those around you.