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Local view: Get ‘Firewise’ this wildfire season

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It’s hard for many people to believe wildfires can be a problem in spring. After all, in many areas there is still snow on the ground, and we usually get a lot rain this time of year.

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But what we need to keep in mind during this time of the year is the vegetation and the weather. Most of the vegetation we see this time of year is dead and dry: last year’s leaves, flowers and grass. Dry plant material cannot hold moisture, which creates a wick primed for ignition. The warm, dry, breezy days we hope for in spring also are the days most favorable for fires. High wildfire risk will remain until the danger of frost has passed and new green vegetation has fully emerged.

This week, April 20-26, is “Wildfire Prevention Week” across Wisconsin and other Great Lakes states. This is a good time to remind everyone of the very real annual threat of wildfires.

The risk of wildfire became a dramatic reality in Douglas County last May. A single spark in a forest ignited the Germann Road Fire, the largest wildfire in Wisconsin in 30 years. About 100 homes and seasonal cabins were in the path of the fire. After the fire was extinguished, 23 homes and seasonal cabins and 80 outbuildings were consumed.

An estimated 350 buildings survived the fire thanks to firefighters’ suppression efforts and the utilization of “Firewise” practices.

“Firewise” refers to sometimes simple and sometimes more-involved acts of maintenance: keeping areas around buildings and under decks free of leaves and pine needles, cleaning debris out of rain gutters, moving firewood stacks to spots at least 30 feet away from buildings, making sure your driveway is wide enough for a fire engine, and removing evergreen trees and shrubs within a 30-foot zone around buildings.

Becoming “Firewise” is not difficult but does require a commitment. Being “Firewise” requires attention to your home’s surroundings and what might start a wildfire or encourage the spread of one.

Try this “Firewise” activity: Take a walk around your home or seasonal cabin with an imaginary lit match in your hand. Anywhere you would not feel comfortable tossing it down and walking away is a place where you need to do some work.

The Department of Natural Resources is committed to bringing awareness to the threat of wildfire in Wisconsin. This year’s fire prevention campaign is “Be Ember Aware.” A four-minute video, featuring footage from the Germann Road Fire, along with a special Web page and publications, are available for view at dnr.wi.gov (keyword “ember”). We hope you will find the information useful.

There also will be a DNR chat on the topic of wildfires today from noon to 1 p.m. Go to dnr.wi.gov (search “chat”). I encourage you to tune in and ask questions of our wildfire experts. As always, should you have any questions on any other day, feel free to contact your local DNR service center, ranger station or Ben Garrett at (715) 635-4088. We’re here to help.

As our old friend in the forest Smokey Bear says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

John Gozdzialski of Spooner is director of the northern region for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

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