Fire Season In The Northwoods

May 11, 2020

Fire season is in full swing here in the Northwoods, as the Masked Biologist will share in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Unless you are a recent transplant to the Northwoods, you are probably aware it is fire season here. In fact, we are rapidly approaching the peak of our fire season in Northern Wisconsin, especially areas with sandy soils and a lot of pine trees. As we have seen precipitation and temperature shifts over the last half century, we have seen changes in fire danger and behavior as well. For example, spring rainfall used to be much more intermittent, with lower intensity and higher frequency. Less rainfall but happening more often. More recently we have seen rainstorms that happen less frequently, but they are much more intense with stronger winds and higher amounts of precipitation. This is bad for a couple of reasons. First of all, high winds result in branches across power lines, which is a significant source of fire ignition up here. Second, when you get higher rainfall per storm, more of it runs off, so although your lake may seem like it fills up fine, the moisture that downed and dead branches, logs and grasses (or fine fuels) can absorb does not increase. This means after a couple of warm windy days we are right back into higher fire danger.

It is my understanding that the number one cause of wildfires here in Wisconsin is men over the age of 50 burning debris (like grass, leaves, and branches). I guess that makes sense. My dad used to burn the ditches at our house every spring, because that is what farmers do I guess. I can tell you though that in my years in northern Wisconsin, the fires I have helped suppress were started by arcing power lines, faulty electronic equipment, and fireworks. If you are found having caused a fire, you will be ticketed and given a fine, and you may have to pay for suppression costs. Consequently it is crucial that you take extra precautions in your work and leisure time at your home or cabin. Make sure your power equipment is in good working order, and be careful about setting down a hot or running chainsaw or driving an all terrain vehicle through dry grass with hot brakes or exhaust. Make sure you are in reach of a fire extinguisher or a hose. Even a five gallon bucket filled with water can make a big difference—once, while driving around for work I came across an unattended campfire that was starting to burn out of the rock ring. I dumped my lunch out of my cooler, scooped some water into it from a nearby stream, and extinguished the fire with it.

Unfortunately, our forests have coexisted with fire since long before our ancestors traveled to this continent. I say unfortunately because we have interrupted that cycle, entering an extended era of fire suppression in Wisconsin and across the country, to the detriment of some of our forest types. For example, lodgepole pines out west and jack pines right here in Wisconsin and across the upper Midwest have special fire-adapted pinecones that pop open and disperse seed when heated by fire. Lack of stand-replacing fire has likely contributed significantly in the reduction of the amount of Jack pine across the landscape. Even oak and aspen would benefit from more fire, but this will never be, so other measures must be implemented in an effort to mimic those more destructive natural processes.

Make sure your home or cabin is adequately protected. You can search Firewise USA on the internet to learn about defensible perimeters and other measures to minimize your potential loss or endangerment. In the case of a major fire, a little bit of preparation can make all the difference.