Report On 2013 Wildfire Finds Response Was Quick, Decisive, Somewhat Flawed

Germann Road Wildfire Torched 7,500 Acres Of Forest

Above, the Germann Road fire that burned through 7,500 acres of forest in Douglas and Bayfield counties. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.

A final Department of Natural Resources report on the state’s largest wildfire in 33 years reveals a fast, cool response and an investigation that gives an inside look at the major players in this disaster.

The Germann Road fire last May 14 torched 7,500 acres of mostly pine forest and destroyed more than 100 buildings, including 22 homes in Douglas and Bayfield counties. About 350 structures were threatened but saved. It took two days to get the flames under control.

Ray Duerr Logging Company was billed $600,000 by the DNR for negligence after their equipment sparked the blaze. The following is an excerpt from a DNR interview of equipment operator Steven Hanke by DNR investigator Gary Bibow the day after the fire started at the place where it started:

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Hanke: “Within, I mean, seconds. I seen it start to go. It started right there. I run over and try putting out my extinguisher. By the time I got there the wind picked up, the flames were too big that I could do anything with it. As soon as those flames got big, I moved my machine as fast as…I mean…I didn’t want my machine to burn.”

Bibow: “Absolutely, yeah.”

Hanke: “So I did the best I could with what I had and once it got out of hand, I took off.”

The fire danger was high that day, with dry conditions before the spring green-up.

The following exchange between Douglas County Emergency Management and the DNR, obtained by a Wisconsin Public Radio open records request, reveals the quick response from the state agency after the blaze began:

DNR dispatch: “We are responding.”

Douglas County 911: “OK”.

DNR dispatch: “And we have two rangers and four heavy units and we will have a plane overhead at some point.”

Douglas County 911: “You guys rock!”

But the tinder conditions and a sudden 90-degree wind shift forced the DNR to move command headquarters and the evacuation center. The report says on-scene coordinators didn’t plan for a worst-case scenario of the wind change.

DNR Forest Protection Director Trent Marty says overall, communication between the 40 different responding agencies was strong.

“It just wasn’t a very good heads-up for firefighters coming in until they actually got to the fire that there was going to be a predicted wind shift,” said Marty. “The wind shift was communicated well from the fire and (it) was handled well from a safety standpoint.”

The DNR can order logging companies to halt operations when fire conditions on state land when fire conditions are very high. The Germann Road fire was on private land, and Marty says that even if it was on state land, weather conditions still fell short of that criteria.

“I don’t think conditions were extreme in that regard at any time in the day,” said Marty. “I mean, it never met that criteria.”

On-sight DNR investigator Gary Bibow did try to comfort owner Ray Duerr and logger Don Rodman.

Bibow: “From everything you’ve told us, there was nothing that was done intentionally. You’ve made every attempt to put it out, from what it looks like. You’ve been very cooperative with everybody I’ve talked to here which says a lot. We really do appreciate that.”

Duerr: “Everybody here feels like shit, you know.”

Rodman: “Can’t even sleep, you know.”

No fines were levied or criminal charges filed in the case.

Marty says the teamwork was about as good as he’d ever seen. And he says there were plenty of heroes that day. For evacuated resident June Thielen of Highland, her hero was DNR Warden Lance Burns.

“I got up and went to the door and a man was there,” said Burns. “He said ‘Evacuate! Fire, June’. He even used my name. And all I saw was smoke and I was just petrified. He said ‘We have less than five minutes’. I was so scared.”

Later, she made it her mission to find the man who helped her: “I’ve got to find my angel. A voice behind me said ‘I was there June. It was me.’ And I turned around and I go ‘Lance!’. I just hugged him. That hug went all the way to Scott Walker’s office, our governor.”

Burns was given the Life Saving award from Walker a week later. He says there were a lot of responders who should not be forgotten. “There was a whole herd of other people. Not only law enforcement. Everybody pitched in.”