Four members of Plover EMS (center left) stand by as Plover fire crews battle the three-acre blaze on April 12. The Wisconsin DNR has issued another heightened fire alert over the 2023 Labor Day weekend. (Metro Wire photo)

Firefighters urge caution as spring fire season may arrive early

By Brandi Makuski

Local firefighters worry that Portage Co. could be facing an early, and busy, spring fire season, and they’re asking residents to take heed of burning regulations.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is also asking the public to stay vigilant and avoid burning because of high fire danger statewide.

Lack of snow cover and accumulated rain statewide are causing an early start to Wisconsin’s wildfire season, the DNR said. Last weekend alone, the DNR responded to 15 wildfires burning nearly 30 acres.

According to Brad Miller from WAOW’s Storm Track 9 Weather Team, the Stevens Point area has seen about 14.3 inches of snowfall between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, but that’s about nine inches below the historic average for that period.

“Normally we’d have snow cover this time of year, but the spring fire season is coming well in advance of normal years,” said Plover Fire Chief Mark Deaver.

A new fire danger sign was installed in Dewey in May 2023. (Metro Wire photo)

Deaver said that inside municipalities like the village of Plover and neighboring Stevens Point, a burning permit is required anytime a resident has anything exceeding a campfire contained to a fire ring — unless there’s a burning ban, which would be announced by the DNR and local fire departments.

Deaver said residents should also pay attention to the level of fire danger issued for a community via the DNR’s website, or area Smokey The Bear signage.

“If the fire danger is high, we strongly suggest that you think twice about having a campfire,” Deaver said. “Depending on what kind of moisture we get in the coming days, spring fire season this year could be a long one; until everything greens up, and that could be two or three months yet.”

Fire Chief Jeremy Spencer in Stockton said his biggest concern right now is the lack of precipitation combined with high winds.

“Anytime someone lights a campfire on windy days, it is a concern — especially with the amount of dry fuel that we have as well as high wind speeds,” Spencer said, adding that in his area, burning permits are currently suspended.

But that can change quickly, so Spencer urged residents to check the DNR’s website daily after 9 a.m. to check current conditions. Permits are free but must be obtained prior to a burning day.

“But when conditions improve, residents can go to WisBurn and fill out an application for a burning permit online,” Spencer said.

Dewey Fire Chief Brian Lepper said last year’s fire season was particularly active because of conditions similar to what the Portage Co. area is now experiencing.

“Unless we have a very wet spring, we will likely have a very dangerous spring wildfire season; perhaps even a dangerous summer, like last summer,” Lepper said.

The DNR reported 1,073 wildfires in 2023, resulting in over 4,000 acres burned. Forty-one of those fires were in Portage Co., making it the county with the ninth-highest number of wildfires in Wisconsin last year.

To date in 2024, 83 wildfires have been reported with over 200 acres burned, the DNR said.

Burning permits are required from January 1 through May 31, anytime the ground is not completely covered in snow, although in 2023, the DNR extended the burning permit requirement well after May 31 due to dry conditions, Lepper said. Permits are issued on an annual basis, but the person burning must check each day to ensure burning is allowed that day.

“This daily check, in my opinion, is one of the most important pieces of needing the permit,” Lepper added.

Residents can also find more information here: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/OpenBurning/BeforeYouBurn.html.