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US Sen. Tammy Baldwin questions military officials about prescribed burns at Fort McCoy despite fire risk

Letter questions whether the fort assessed the fire risk, coordinated with state agencies that had issued red flag warning

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A wildfire burns forest land in Monroe County
A wildfire continues to burn in northern Monroe County on Thursday, April 13, 2023. DNR officials said the fire’s intensity died down in the evening, allowing firefighters to increase containment lines. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is questioning military officials about prescribed burns at Fort McCoy leading up to the outbreak of a 3,037-acre wildfire at the Monroe County base.

Baldwin sent a letter to U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on Monday asking for an explanation of how the military assesses fire risk ahead of a prescribed burn and how officials coordinate with state agencies when carrying out those activities. The senator pointed out that prescribed burns were happening at the base in the days before the Arcadia Fire broke out on April 12, even as state officials warned about the high fire danger in the region.

According to posts on Fort McCoy’s Facebook page, the base’s prescribed burn team completed a burn on April 10. Photos show that Wisconsin National Guard Black Hawk air teams participated in a fire suppression training during the event.

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The state Department of Natural Resources reported Monroe County and the southern two thirds of the state had very high fire danger on April 10. The agency warned residents to “stay vigilant and avoid burning” because of dry and windy conditions across the region.

On the morning of April 12, the Fort McCoy Facebook page posted at 9:50 a.m. that the prescribed burn team would be conducting burns from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m that day.

Twenty-five minutes later, Gov. Tony Evers declared a State of Emergency “in response to elevated wildfire conditions throughout the state,” activating the Wisconsin National Guard to provide wildfire suppression support to the DNR. The DNR and the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on April 12 in Monroe County and 37 other counties across the state.

At 8:23 p.m. that day, Fort McCoy officials posted on Facebook that a wildfire was in progress on the fort’s northeast border. The fire was contained by Fort McCoy and the DNR on April 14.

A spokesperson for Fort McCoy did not confirm whether the prescribed burn announced on April 12 took place. The spokesperson said in an email that she could not share specific information about the teams involved because of an investigation into the cause of the fire.

Baldwin acknowledged in her letter that an investigation into the fire was underway and requested the full results of the inquiry once completed.

“It is imperative that we protect the areas both in and around our military installations, and that the Department of Defense use all resources available to ensure appropriate risk mitigation when conducting operations that have a direct impact on the environment and communities,” Baldwin wrote in the letter.

Baldwin also asked in her letter what the Army is doing to clean up the area and measure the environmental impact of the fire.

James Barnier, forest fire protection section chief for the DNR, said Fort McCoy notifies his agency before they carry out prescribed burns and the base did advise the DNR of their plans that week.

“We didn’t discuss any various conditions or criteria for them,” he said. “They are not under Wisconsin DNR jurisdiction, so they can manage their property as they see fit.”

Barnier said 62 acres of private property were burned and the fire damaged three homes and destroyed a shed. He said 167 homes were threatened by the blaze. The DNR is not investigating the cause of the fire because it started on federal land.

Monroe County Board Chair Cedric Schnitzler said the county considers Fort McCoy a good neighbor. But he said residents have raised questions about whether the right protocols or good judgment were used when deciding to hold prescribed burns on a day with a red flag warning.

“(The fire) caused a lot of anxiety for surrounding individuals, townships, particularly Grant,” Schnitzler said. “Kids, families being evacuated or asked to leave and not knowing what the future held for their homes.”

Schnitzler said while the damage to municipal and private property is unfortunate, he feels the impact could have been worse considering the dangerous conditions.

He said officials from the base have started meeting with local townships to assess road damage. Fort McCoy posted on Facebook last Friday that people who sustained property damages or personal injuries as a result of the fire can submit a claim for compensation.

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