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Germann Road fire, one year later: Why some buildings burned, and some survived

The Rock Lake cabin of Matt and Anna Preiner of St. Paul is seen in flames the evening of May 14, 2013, in the Germann Road fire in Douglas County. The area once was heavily treed but is now logged-off. (File / News Tribune)

By John Myers

Duluth News Tribune

An analysis of homes, cabins and out buildings destroyed one year ago in the Germann Road wildfire in Douglas County shows two factors critical to determining which homes survived and which burned.

How far were they from the forest? And how wide was the driveway?

Crews from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted the post-fire assessment just six days after the May 14, 2013, fire spread across 7,442 acres, destroying 23 homes and cabins and another 81 structures in just a few hours.

It was Wisconsin’s largest wildfire in 33 years.

To an untrained eye, the pattern of destruction might seem random. But fire officials say that clearly was not the case. Home and cabin owners who had cleared space around their buildings and who had a wide access onto their property stood the best chance of seeing their homes or cabins survive.

The DNR study looked closely at 96 of the 100 homes and cabins that were in the path of the fire. The average structure that survived the flames was 27 feet away from “unmanaged” heavy vegetation in the woods, the report concluded.

Buildings destroyed were an average of 19 feet from the woods.

“We know the national literature has keyed in on that 30-foot clearance number, and the Germann Road fire really bears that out. If you have 30 feet cleared around your home, or close to it, it’s much more likely to survive a wildfire,’’ said

Jolene Ackerman, wildland-urban interface coordinator for the DNR.

The “wildland-urban interface” is where the forest meets buildings.

Nearly as important as open space was how far homes and cabins were from other “outbuildings.” While the home itself might be

30 feet from thick vegetation, sheds, garages and even outhouses closer to the woods often ignited, carrying the fire to the house itself, said Ackerman, who led the post-fire analysis.

“In one case, we could just follow the ash pattern across the yard,” she said. “The fire essentially stopped at the yard, but the shed was right up against the trees, so it burned. Then it (the shed fire) caught the garage on fire. Then the fire jumped from the garage to the house and the house was destroyed. … It was like a fuse that leads from the trees to the home.

“That building-to-building distance is just as important, because a burning building carries so much heat and flame, longer than a burning tree. People don’t think about it, but you need that 30 feet around your shed, too,” she said.

Indeed, the fire analysis showed the average distance between forest and outbuildings that burned was just 6 feet. Outbuildings that survived averaged 17 feet from heavy or “unmanaged” foliage.

Ackerman found the same situation after the 2005 Cottonville fire in central Wisconsin that destroyed 90 buildings, including 30 homes and cabins. Fire can move from forest to buildings in two ways — either along a continuous path or by “spotting’’ downwind, when flaming embers fall and ignite secondary fires that are sometimes miles ahead of the primary fire.

Wide driveways

The Germann Road fire also showed that it’s critical that driveways be wide enough for large fire trucks to drive down and turn around as crews make hurried “triage’’ decisions during fires on which properties are defendable and which are unsafe for them to enter. Even a wide driveway can be a problem, however, if trees overhang: Fire trucks can be 10, even 12 feet tall.

Not a single home or cabin was lost to the Germann Road fire where the driveway clearance was 20 feet or wider. Thirteen properties had driveways narrower than the recommended minimum of 12 feet, and six of those were destroyed.

“The crews need to be able to get in and get out fast. You don’t need 20 feet of concrete or blacktop. But it has to be wide enough between the trees and stumps for them to pass,’’ Ackerman said.

Properties with gates were slightly more likely to have burned — 33 percent, than those without gates — 22 percent.

Other variables had surprisingly little bearing on fire survivability, including how long the driveway was or how big or expensive the home was, Ackerman said. The assessed value of primary buildings destroyed ranged from $3,500 for a seasonal mobile home to $313,000 for a year-round home.

And the report shows that it’s important to take action before a fire and not to depend on firefighters to save your home. Of the 100 properties in the fire’s path, crews were on hand for 38 of them at some point during the fire — including pre-treating homes and buildings with fire-retardant foam, actively dousing flames, clearing flammable debris or rapidly digging fire-breaks with bulldozers.

Firefighters may have saved as many as 23 homes and cabins by their action, the report found. But seven cabins or homes burned even with crews on the scene trying to save them.

Hot, dry, windy day

The fire started off Germann Road, east of U.S. Highway 53 near Gordon, in hot, dry conditions in a place — a jack pine, red pine and scrub oak forest with sandy soil — that’s subject to frequent wildfires.

It also happened in spring, by far the region’s most fire prone time of year, when last autumn’s dead grass and leaves are still ready to burn, snow has melted and the new summer’s foliage has yet to sprout. Anytime between snowmelt and greenup is potential fire time in the Northland.

On May 14, 2013, temperatures in southern Douglas County shot into the upper 80s under a blazing sun; the humidity was unusually low and wind gusts from the southwest were near 20 mph, all after several days with no precipitation.

All it took was a spark, and that came from a piece of logging equipment owned by Ray Duerr Logging of Rib Lake, Wis.

The logging crew at the scene tried to douse the fire with a hand-held extinguisher. The operator told investigators he even poured bottled water and Gatorade on the flames and tried running it over the fire with the logging machine. The crew said they thought at one point it was out. But then the machine operator watched as the fire jumped 30 to 40 yards to a pile of cut jack pine, which burst into flames, igniting standing jack pine, among the most flammable tree in the forest.

By then, the fire was off on its 12-mile path of destruction. The wind pushed the fire to grow too big and too fast for anyone to stop, with fire jumping between the tops — or crowns — of trees.

“The forest fire then became a running crown fire with a separate surface fire beneath,” DNR fire investigators wrote in their report last summer.

The fire burned across the towns of Gordon and Highland in Douglas County and then spread into the town of Barnes in Bayfield County.

The fire first was reported by the logging crew just after 2 p.m. Southwest winds gusting to 30 mph pushed it fast to the northeast, at one point racing 2 miles in less than an hour.

By 8 p.m., the wind switched to out of the west, then the northwest, with gusts to 30 mph that turned the fire straight toward Barnes, a scattered collection of homes, cabins, small resorts, taverns and deer shacks along Wisconsin Highway 27, where several evacuees had taken refuge ahead of the fire. Many people had to evacuate for a second time in the same day.

In all, about 100 residents were evacuated from the areas around Rock Lake, Loon Lake, Murray Lake, Beauregard Lake, Sand Lake, Catherine Lake, Ellison Lake and from Potowatomi Estates and the village of Barnes.

Eventually, the wind diminished, slowing the spread and allowing crews got the upper hand early on May 15.

The fire burned in a mosaic pattern of damage along 8 miles. Not everything in the fire’s path was destroyed. Some areas were hardly burned while others were charred, leaving miles of blackened trees and ground. The fire burned so hot that aluminum siding on homes melted. A swing set was melted and deformed in the yard of a house that had burned to ashes. Power poles burned, downing lines. Even wooden guard rails along roadways were burning.

Crews from more than 22 volunteer fire departments from across northern Wisconsin deployed overnight to save as many homes as they could. In all, more than 39 local fire departments helped with the fire.

Ironically, 2013 was a year with a very cold, wet, late spring, much like this year. State and local officials charged with watching out for fires thought they might make it through the fire season without a major blaze.  

“Considering we didn’t think we were going to have a fire season at all last year, with how cold and wet it was, I think it turned out about as well as could be expected,” said Keith Kesler, director of emergency management for Douglas County.

Fire departments, the DNR and law enforcement agencies had practiced a mock wildfire response in nearly the exact same area just a few years before, Kesler noted, precisely because the area is so prone to fires. He said the evacuation of the area ahead of the Germann Road fire went well, noting no one was hurt. And, he said dozens of fire departments were called in to help, many arriving within a couple hours. Years of work to coordinate fire response appeared to have paid-off.

“The fire happened on about the only day of spring that it could have,’’ he said. “But we had a lot of cooperation, and the system worked. We got everyone out of the way.”

Logging company hasn’t paid

While no criminal charges were filed, the DNR deemed in June 2013 that the logging company was responsible for the fire and would have to pay $618,000 for the cost to battle the blaze. Investigators determined the logging crew attempted to use a machine-mounted fire suppression system on the tree cutter but that it failed to work. When DNR investigators tested the system in June, they found the pressure was too low. The DNR concluded the logging company didn’t properly maintain the system.

But when Duerr received the bill, the company didn’t pay, instead handing it over to their insurance company. The fine now has been turned over to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The department continues to review the matter but has not yet filed in civil court, said Dana Brueck, a department spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, insurance companies for property owners also are suing the logging company’s insurance company and the logging company itself. It could be many months, if not years, until it’s all straightened out.

“I receive copies of letters weekly from lawyers suing the logging company and the logging company insurance suing the logging company,’’ said Anna Preiner, whose Rock Lake cabin was destroyed by the fire. “Sounds like no one wants to admit fault.”

Timber company takes big loss

Perhaps the biggest loser in the Germann Road fire was New Hampshire-based Lyme Timber Co. a real-estate investment firm that makes money managing timberlands across the country.

Of the 7,442 acres inside the fire area, Lyme owned about 4,800 acres. Of that, 3,500 acres was red pine and jack pine plantations that were badly charred.

“Salvage efforts began within a few days after the fire, and regional mills such as Bell Pole, Biewer Lumber and Hedstrom Lumber, as well as the local logging and trucking community, did everything they could to help us salvage as much of the useable wood as possible,’’ said Sean Ross, Lyme’s director of forestry operations.  Still, “only about 25 percent of the plantation acreage that burned could be salvaged.”

That loss could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of standing timber.  And even among the wood that was cut, the value was significantly reduced, Ross said.

The company won’t say what its financial loss was from the fire, and Ross declined to say how much money the company may seek in damages through legal action.

Lyme has been working with the DNR to develop a reforestation plan but currently is waiting for a likely infestation of pine beetles to subside before tree planting begins. The DNR also has told homeowners to wait until 2015, when the threat of pine beetles likely will diminish, before major replanting efforts.