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Monday, June 24, 2024
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Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

As a famous bear turns 80, be wary of wildfires in Wisconsin

Though devastating wildfires in the South and Pacific West frequently make headlines, wildfires pose a threat to states like Wisconsin, too

He’s turning 80 this year, but you probably still see him all around the country delivering one message: only you can prevent wildfires. 

Be it on TV, radio or driving by one of the many standing fire danger signs, Smokey Bear has spread the message of wildfire prevention for decades. But statistics say there’s a lot more work to be done.

Since 1983, the National Interagency Fire Center reported an average of approximately 70,000 wildfires per year across the country. Wildfires are natural parts of some ecosystems and can be beneficial to native plant species and biodiversity, according to National Geographic. 

However, a significant number of those aren’t part of natural forest systems. Natural wildfires are most often caused by lightning, but in Wisconsin, 98% of wildfires are caused by humans, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That also means that 98% of wildfires in the state can be prevented. 

Catherine Koele is a wildfire prevention specialist for the Wisconsin DNR and has been doing the job for about 20 years.

“I think there's a little bit of a misconception about kinds of fires in the Great Lakes region. You see the news and you think of these huge wildfires in the Western United States, but a lot of those are caused by lightning,” Koele told The Daily Cardinal. “In Wisconsin, about a third of our fires are caused by debris burning, so it's kind of a cultural thing.”

Dane County has already seen four wildfires in 2024. Wisconsin as a whole has seen 508 wildfires and 1,006 acres burned so far this year, according to the DNR. From 2012 to 2023, the state lost 338 structures to wildfires, and 4,090 structures were saved from wildfires.

Koele said wildfires that start in remote areas out west are less likely to affect property. But Wisconsin’s forests and where people choose to build homes poses a unique wildfire threat in the state.

“[In Wisconsin] our fires are very fast, very quick. They're typically caused by people where people live, so it does place a higher risk on homes and properties,” Koele said. “It's called a wildland urban interface. We do have a lot of that where the forest meets homes. When these fires occur, it immediately places your home at risk.”

Beyond debris burning, which requires a permit, Koele said campfires and cooking fires can be dangerous if done recklessly.

“While we don't have a ton of those wildfires in Wisconsin — less than 10% — a fire in the wrong place can do some damage,” Koele said.

Earlier this April, a cooking fire caused a wildfire that burned through 200 acres in Washburn County, Koele said.

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What you can do to protect Wisconsin’s forests

As Wisconsin moves away from the spring and winter season into another summer, here’s what to keep in mind to protect the environment while enjoying the outdoors.

The major threats are organized fires like debris burning and cooking or campfires, Koele said. Fireworks also cause a concerning spike in wildfires, particularly around the Fourth of July.

“In Wisconsin, we have most of our vegetation pretty greened up usually in July, and that's usually when we start to see fires go down,” Koele said. “But if we find ourselves in a drought situation, having those fireworks — any sparks can cause a fire, especially in those really dry grasses.”

Be careful disposing of charcoal briquettes from the Fourth of July and summer grills, too, Koele said. If they’re still hot to the touch, they could be prime fuel for a wildfire.

Cigarette butts, despite their perceptions, aren’t among the leading causes of wildfires.

“Less than 1 or 2% of our fires are caused by smoking debris, so not to say that it can't happen,” Koele said. “We shouldn't be throwing any smoking materials into the outdoors just because of the littering obviously, but I think that's a big misconception.”

The best thing you can do is educate yourself about wildfire risks and always check the local fire danger and fire restrictions before heading out to grill, start a campfire or recreate with any sort of fire, Koele said. 

The WISBURN app also provides educational resources, Koele said. Smokey Bear also has fire safety tips on his website.

As you head out to enjoy Wisconsin’s beautiful outdoors, don’t forget to keep one of America’s favorite bears and his message close to your heart. It’s up to everyone to keep Wisconsin’s stunning forests safe from wildfires.



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Ian Wilder

Ian Wilder is a Sports Editor and former senior staff writer for The Daily Cardinal. He’s formerly covered the men’s hockey beat, state politics and features. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.

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