Minong fire of '77 remembered in new book

It started in the early afternoon of April 30 in a field west of Minong with sparks from a small campfire. The Schultz family and friends were about to roast hot dogs after clearing brush at their deer-hunting land. They never got the chance. A s...

Minong fire
The Five Mile Fire looms above View Point Lodge near Minong in 1977. Photo by John Howard Wickland.
Contributed / John Howard Wickland

It started in the early afternoon of April 30 in a field west of Minong with sparks from a small campfire.

The Schultz family and friends were about to roast hot dogs after clearing brush at their deer-hunting land. They never got the chance.

A single, flaming leaf blew out of the rock fire ring, instantly starting nearby grass on fire. The grass fire spread to pine trees that torched in seconds. Over the next 17 hours the "Five Mile Tower Fire'' of 1977 burned across 13,375 acres -- about 21 square miles -- of forest and brush and destroyed 63 buildings over 15 miles.

Fueled by a year of drought and pushed by gusty south winds, the fire started in Washburn County and blew into Douglas County, just west of a line from Minong to Gordon.

It wasn't huge by historical forest fire standards. But, the Five Mile Tower fire was one of the biggest in the state in the past half-century. The fire, named for a nearby fire lookout tower, may be best known for its visibility and public involvement than its sheer size: It was the last big fire in Wisconsin in which the public was conscripted to battle the blaze.


More than 1,600 people, mostly local residents, signed up to fight the fire and were paid $2.30 per hour by the state. Many showed up in T-shirts and tennis shoes. They battled alongside Department of Natural Resources foresters, local construction contractors and volunteer firefighters and managed to help hold the lines, whittle the fire down on its flanks, and eventually stop it at the St. Croix River.

"It was Wisconsin's last citizen-fought fire of any size. People came from all over the area to help. There were so many people volunteering that the roads were jammed,'' said Bill Matthias, author of the new book called "Monster Fire at Minong, Wisconsin's Five Mile Tower Fire of 1977.''

Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt.

Matthias, then superintendent of the Northwood School District around Minong, was one of those 1,600 volunteers. And on the 33rd anniversary of the fire, Matthias, now a summer resident of Bond Lake near Wascott, has written the short but detailed book to keep the memory of the fire and its heroes alive.

If the same fire started today, civilians would be escorted out of the area and then blocked from getting in, leaving the battle to the DNR and local volunteer fire departments.

"We had kids 16, 17 years old fighting that fire. You'd never see that today," said Matthias, who, even before the big fire, had organized two squads of Northwoods senior high boys into wild land firefighting teams. "They kept their gear in their lockers and were ready to go. ... But, they just had T-shirts and jeans, maybe good boots. Now, you can't get near a fire line without Nomex [fireproof] clothing and hardhats.''

Matthias, now 66 and retired, interviewed 135 people while researching the book and names nearly all of them, along with the role they played in the fire -- from game wardens evacuating residents a step ahead of the flames to members of local women's groups who made sandwiches for famished firefighters. He even lists the names of all 1,600 people who officially signed up to fight the fire.

Matthias also notes his own brief brush with danger when he made a wrong turn and drove a volunteer crew of firefighters into the midst of a raging crown fire of pine trees.


Matthias's extensive research shows as he offers the names of bulldozer drivers and even the model of the machines they worked on, chronicling the key role heavy equipment plays in northern Wisconsin firefighting efforts, scraping fire lines into the soil to rob fires of fuel.

The book "started out as a single story ... then a series of stories for the Spooner Advocate [newspaper] for the 30th anniversary of the fire'' in 2007, Matthias said. It took him two tries, but he finally convinced publishers to print the book.

The 1977 fire left other legacies as well, Matthias notes. It spurred development of well-trained, well-equipped volunteer fire departments in rural areas across Northwestern Wisconsin. Matthias trained back then as a charter member of the Wascott Volunteer Fire Department and remains an active member to this day.

Cell phones and high-tech radios have replaced CB radios and pay phones, Matthias noted, both for reporting fires and orchestrating the firefight.

"The cell phone has made reporting these fires so fast now. And the radios are so much better. Back then, the DNR couldn't even talk to the local fire departments,'' Matthias said.

Echoing the professional DNR firefighters he interviewed for the book, Matthias said too many people take for granted that no big fires have spread in the region over the last 30 years.

If conditions are right -- like they are now with an unusually early, drought-stricken spring -- Matthias said another Five Mile Tower Fire could happen.

"When you get mornings with no dew and the humidity is down there below 20 percent, and then you get winds like that -- above 20 miles per hour -- it doesn't take much for a fire to get going,'' he said. "But, we also have better-trained, better-equipped firefighters than ever before. They are so good about getting on top of things that you don't see many fires get the chance to grow.''

Related Topics: FIRESMINONG
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