Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency Monday as wildfires continue to pop up across the state.
More than a thousand acres of Wisconsin land have been affected so far this spring, with dry leaves, grass and plants such as cattails serving as fuel. The Department of Natural Resources typically handles wildfire suppression in some parts of the state but asked the governor for additional help due to the unusually dry conditions.
Evers’ order will allow for the Wisconsin National Guard to be deployed along with its Blackhawk helicopters, according to the order.
“With nearly the entire state experiencing high or very high fire risk, protecting Wisconsinites from the destructive dangers of wildfires is a top priority,” Evers said in the announcement of the order. “The ability of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to have all available resources ready to be quickly dispatched is a critical element in keeping fires small and achieving swift containment.”
Sarah Hoye, communications director for the DNR, said the helicopters can be used to carry large buckets of water to fires, to help with suppression efforts from the air.
“It’s a big deal, and another tool in the toolbox,” she said.
More than 320 wildfires have already been reported this year, burning more than 1,400 acres. Fire danger still remains “very high” across the state, meaning fires start easily, spread rapidly with increased intensity and are very difficult to control.
Brush fires that started Friday in Menomonee Falls forced residents to evacuate their homes.
Wildfire season starts early
Wildfire season started earlier and will run longer this year than in others due to snow melting earlier than usual around the state, Hoye said. Gusty winds, low humidity, and dry grass and ground cover are also contributing to the issue.
Typically, fire season lasts through May, with about 4,000 wildfires a year. Most fires take place in the spring. Hoye said the number of fires this year is already getting close to eclipsing the 1,600 acres that were damaged in all of 2020.
Right now, debris burning has been the largest cause of wildfires, causing about 40% of the fires this year. Campfires have caused another 3%, while equipment creating sparks or heat has caused another 20%. Other fires started in a variety of ways, such as sparks from a train.
The DNR is urging Wisconsinites to avoid any type of burning, including campfires, at this time.
Hoye said it’s important for people to remember it’s not just leaf burning or campfires gone wrong that are causing blazes — it can start with something as simple as a cigarette being flicked out a window or dropped onto some dry grass.
“All it takes is one spark. That’s it,” she said. “We can prevent a lot of these fires.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.