© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What’s happened during Wisconsin’s spring wildfire season so far

a fire burns at the end of a dirt road, filling the daytime sky with smoke
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources
Wisconsin's spring wildfire season typically runs March through May. This year, it began fast and early in mid-February.

In Wisconsin, most wildfires occur in the spring, with the season typically running from March to May. After the snowpack melts away, dry weather can leave the underlying grass and leaf litter dry and primed to burn. Warm temperatures, low humidity and breezy days, combined with the fact that many landowners burn their yard waste in the spring, give rise to most wildfires in Wisconsin.

This year, the spring fire season took off in mid-February — early and fast, after a warm, dry winter. By mid-March, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 193 fires had burned across 356 acres — compared to seven fires at that point last year. As of publication, 710 fires have burned 1,383 acres this year.

To learn how this year’s spring fire season has played out so far, I spoke with Catherine Koele, a wildfire prevention specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Lina Tran: We are talking a couple months into Wisconsin’s spring wildfire season, which started fast and early this year after our warmest winter on record. Can you just talk about the season we've had so far? What stood out to you? 

Catherine Koele: Like everything in Wisconsin, when we talk about weather, it's pretty unpredictable, and this year was no different. We started with snow-free conditions statewide, back in mid-February. So that certainly is unique, which puts us right into fire season statewide. We were having fires in February, which is not very normal when it comes to a wildfire season. But fire season in the spring is normal. We're kind of anticipating about two weeks ahead of schedule, in terms of our vegetation greening-up across the state.

Tran: So early start, maybe early end to the spring fire season is what I'm hearing? 

Koele: That’s what we're hoping for. Typically we wrap up our more aggressive fire staffing by Memorial Day weekend. So just looking at the green-up progression of vegetation across the state, we are seeing about two weeks ahead of schedule.

Tran: Can you talk about the fires that we did see in the past couple of months? How does that compare to what you might typically see during a spring wildfire season in Wisconsin? 

Koele: When we were looking at our numbers, we had quite a bit of activity early on. We weren't seeing red flag days, where we see that extreme fire danger. But we were seeing elevated fire [danger], kind of hovering in that high to very high, very early this year. What kept things at bay [is] we weren't having very warm, dry, windy days. So what puts us into that very high, extreme category [is] when we start to see temperatures [of] 70-plus degrees. That, with the low humidity and increased winds. So, no red flag days to date. But we are starting to see the temperatures kind of slowly creep up. We're still not out of the woods just yet. The next couple of weeks will be very telling for the fire season.

Last year, we came off of an extended drought. So we had steady fire activity all throughout the summer — nothing major. But we were seeing fires on the landscape. We normally tend to see those drop off in the summer when vegetation is really green and the humidity is up. So, I guess we'll just kind of have to take it day by day. And hopefully we turn back into a normal summer.

Tran: I understand that this spring, the entire state had that fire risk at once, as opposed to slowly moving first through the south than the northern part of the state. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Koele: Yeah, so a normal fire season in Wisconsin, we typically start around mid-March in the southern part of the state. As that snow cover disappears, [fire danger] slowly progresses north with the snow cover. Which allows us to move resources around very efficiently. We move resources in the northern part of the state down into the south, where we have the more elevated fire and then vice versa, as we get into May.

This year, we had to be a little bit more strategic and place our fire resources accordingly as the fire danger was changing day to day. If we saw opportunities to move equipment around in the higher geographic areas — so we have sandy soils, a lot of pine country — we would do that. We also had access to some Black Hawk helicopters from the Army National Guard. We had those on standby as well as air tankers.

Tran: Having to be nimble like that, how does that affect your team and the work that y’all do? What are some of the challenges?

Koele: One of the big safety concerns that we saw this fire season was firefighter burnout. Starting in February makes for a very long fire season. So we really keep an eye on our staff and get folks time off when they need it. Like, if it would rain a day or two, we would tell folks they need to take some time off and reset their clocks. Firefighter burnout was certainly a big concern.

Something that I think is being noticed on the landscape was due to the lack of snow cover, the really heavy snowpack that we [see] in the northern part of the state, which we normally traditionally have a lot of that — vegetation gets compounded and pressed down. But because of the lack of snow, we saw the vegetation standing up more, which was more prone to carry fire more rapidly in the spring. So we were seeing fire in the woods, a little bit more rapid fire spread. That was certainly a safety concern that we saw out there as well.

a farm field in spring shows dry straw burning
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources
High winds and drought led to high fire danger across the state in March.

Tran: You mentioned earlier that this year, we may be seeing the fire season shift a couple of weeks on either end. We just had Wisconsin's warmest winter on record. I'm wondering as climate change brings milder winters, do you anticipate more of that shifting and having to be ready earlier and earlier?

Koele: Anytime the ground is not completely snow-covered, we are susceptible to fire. So that's something to be aware of. Even on days when the fire danger is low, fires can start and spread. Now, the rate of spread can change when that fire danger is minimized. So anytime the ground is snow-free, we can have fires. It just depends on the location and the weather conditions. That's certainly something that folks need to be aware of.

In terms of seasonal trends that we're seeing, I've been with the department for over 20 years, and it seems like every year is unique. But overall, we have seen a steady decrease in the number of wildfires, generally speaking. We have had wetter springs in the past, and then we'll have these anomalies where we have an increase in snow-free conditions. So I'm hoping it's just an anomaly.

Tran: Well, I understand that most fires in Wisconsin are caused by people. So do you think that it's a behavior, education thing, when you're talking about the decline in the years that you've been with the DNR?

Koele: Ninety-eight percent of our fires are caused by people. So the good news is, it can be prevented. The causes that we typically see are related to debris burning, and they typically happen in the spring. I'd like to think that the blue bins at the schools, the recycling bins — this generation that's now in their adulthood are making better decisions in terms of choosing to burn materials. I think folks are burning less as a method of disposal, which is great. Always choose alternatives to burning.

And then just public education. The tools that we have to be able to alert the public on elevated fire days, using social media, using the media, to get the word out and alert folks on these elevated fire days is really important. Because choosing to hold off on burning for one day can make all the difference.

Tran: Twenty years into this, what surprises you?

Koele: I'll be honest, I always had a goal to really see a reduction in our debris-burning fires. And people still choose to rake up those materials and burn them in the spring. Sometimes you think you're getting through to folks, but it's still the number one cause of fire. So I am surprised that folks still choose to burn their materials and do it on very dry, windy days. I’ll keep on putting up the good fight to educate the public, but it does surprise me that folks still choose to use burning as a method of disposal.

Tran: What would you like to see them do instead?

Koele: Just find alternatives to burning. The best time to burn is when the ground is completely snow-covered. Fires can't escape and get away, and it's going to be the safest opportunity to burn those materials. If you're adamant about burning, there are better days than others. Obtain proper burning permits, follow the rules on the permit. Sometimes people will get a burn permit and then not actually read it. Reading the permit is a really good idea. And then just talk to fire officials. They can help you, guide you, to make sure that your fire is safe.

Tran: Is there anything that you want people to be mindful of heading into the summer?

Koele: With our changing climate and the day-to-day weather conditions, I think it's really important for folks to know that fire danger can change very quickly. It's really important to know what that current fire danger is. And then, you know, modify your burning behavior based on that. Little things like in the summer — I love to have a campfire. Not having it during the day can really make a difference from your fire escaping. Choosing to have those fires in the evening, making sure it's attended at all times, having water and tools. And honestly, making sure those fires are out. A lot of times, people don't realize how long those little embers in there can burn, and the next day, rekindle and escape and cause a fire. So, you know, just being a good steward to the landscape.

You can check the current fire danger through the DNR’s WisBurn tool and find information about burn permits here


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content