Volunteer firefighters in Douglas County have responded to a string of structure fires in the past month, putting pressure on volunteer fire departments who are struggling to grow their ranks.
Douglas County has 19 fire departments serving 22 municipalities — one career, 18 volunteer.
The most recent incident, a garage fire in the town of Lakeside Jan. 9, caused an estimated $50,000 worth of damage. Lakeside Fire Chief Nova Nordrum said the fire, which destroyed a portable carport and the skid steer inside, appeared to be electrical.
Firefighters were able to put out the blaze and clear the scene in less than two hours, despite a light initial response. Nordrum's daughter, Hope, 19, recently became a full member of the Lakeside Volunteer Fire Department and did the initial attack on the fire to knock it down, she said.
“When we got on scene last night there was just two of us,” Nordrum said Friday.
Additional firefighters showed up within 10 minutes. The Amnicon, Parkland and Poplar departments assisted.
Nordrum credited the quick response to Douglas County’s auto aid system, which was launched in 2017. When a structure fire is reported, the Communications Center automatically calls out the home fire department and the next two closest departments.
The initial small response, however, highlights the need for more volunteer firefighters. Lakeside currently has 11 members.
Volunteers balance full-time jobs, activities and firefighting. Not everyone is available when a call comes in.
“The more people you have, the more likelihood you have of people being in the area (to respond to a call),” Nordrum said.
Tim Halbur, fire services director at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, said Lakeside is not the only volunteer fire department in need of additional members. WITC trains firefighters in an 11-county region, including Douglas County.
“Every county in our district, a common complaint I get from fire chiefs is they just can’t get people to join and then to stay,” Halbur said. “They get young people in, but then life happens and people leave for other things.”
It takes 60 hours of training to become an entry level firefighter in Wisconsin, Halbur said, although volunteers can participate in certain functions as they train. To drive or operate a pumper truck requires an additional 30 hours of training; officers must take another 40 hours. Entry level training is free, paid for through Wisconsin's 2% Fire Dues program.
A dozen new firefighters are set to begin entry-level training in Solon Springs this week, said Dave Haan, fire training manager for WITC's northern four counties. Once they attain firefighter status, a minimum of 24 hours of ongoing training is required annually.
Volunteer emergency medical responders are also needed. The Lakeside Volunteer Fire Department responds to 30 calls a year, 90% of which are medical.
“Twenty years ago a fire department would respond to a medical (call) one or two times a month, and now it is a daily occurrence,” said Town of Superior Fire Chief Darryl Fiegle.
Fiegle said each of the departments in the county offer some sort of incentive plan. The Town of Superior implemented a retirement plan two years ago. The state will put in a matching grant of up to $300 toward such retirement plans, Haan said. He's seen some firefighters receive a check of up to $12,000 when they retire. Other departments may offer stipends to members who attend training or go on calls.
“All departments are in some need of members, and it is not a local issue. It is a nationwide issue,” said Fiegle, current president of the county-wide Vacationland Fire and Emergency Association.
Other roles need to be filled, as well, including mechanics and secretaries.
Anyone interested in joining a volunteer fire department can contact local members or the fire hall in their area. They can have an immediate impact, Nordrum said.
“Just right out the gate, they can make a huge difference as soon as they finish their training,” Nordrum said.
The string of Douglas County blazes began with a home fire in the village of Lake Nebagamon Dec. 15 that left one man hospitalized.
Firefighters quenched a town of Wascott garage fire Dec. 28.
On Jan. 4, fire destroyed a home in the village of Poplar. There were no injuries and firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the home, saving the outbuildings.
A chimney fire was reported at a home on Tri Lakes Road in the town of Summit Sunday, Jan. 12. Firefighters had already cleared the fire by the time Deputy John Fontaine with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office got there.
“Firefighters were cleaning the inside of the chimney when I arrived,” Fontaine reported.
The home was not damaged.
According to the United States Fire Administration, winter home fires account for 8% of the total number of fires in the nation, but result in 30% of all fire deaths. Cooking is the leading cause of all winter home fires, and a heat source too close to combustibles is the leading factor that contributes to the start of a winter home fire.
Nordrum encouraged residents to perform regular maintenance checks on electric cords. Folks who burn wood for heat should sweep for loose embers before stepping away from the stove and keep chimneys clean to prevent a fire.
Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors should be checked regularly to make sure they work and the batteries are fresh.