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Wildfire spread at speed that was nearly impossible to slow

The Five Mile Tower Forest Fire will go down in the 106-year fire history of Wisconsin as one of its major forest fires. It began in the hilly region south of the Totagatic River, which flowed at just a trickle because of a two-year drought.

The Five Mile Tower Forest Fire will go down in the 106-year fire history of Wisconsin as one of its major forest fires. It began in the hilly region south of the Totagatic River, which flowed at just a trickle because of a two-year drought.

April 30, 1977, is the date thousands of residents of Chicog, Spooner, Wascott, Gordon, Hayward, and Solon Springs will never forget. They also won't forget the next day, May 1, or the following two weeks.

The wildfire burned, leaped, towered, howled, growled and devoured its way northward for 16 hours. It could not be stopped at the head of the flames by caterpillar or legions of men and women; but it could be contained along the edges. When it was finally knocked down along the St. Croix River, almost 15 miles from the beginning, it was still dangerous; a hot, smoldering, smoking giant footprint on the landscape of northwest Wisconsin -- 14,000 acres of black ashes. The skeletons of 63 buildings were testament to the thousand-degree heat and destructive power of wildfire in the pines.

Miraculously there was only one injury, a twisted ankle, on the entire fire scene encompassing 23 square miles fought by almost 1,600 individuals. There was lots of hunger, thirst, cold, heat, dust, smoke, dirt and exhaustion, but everyone was so happy to come out alive and physically intact from the experience.

It started out innocently enough with a family wanting to cook a hot dog lunch. Hayward Area Ranger John DeLaMater, DNR Forester Chuck Adams, Minong DNR Ranger Bill Scott, Webster DNR Ranger Ed Forester, Gordon DNR Ranger Barry Stanek and Minong Fire Chief Harold "Smokey" Smith were the first officials on the scene when a small fire campfire got out of control and grew fast.

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George Becherer and Pete Paske were the first heavy equipment operators on the flames, driving caterpillars with plows behind, cutting roots and digging deep fire lines into the dry sandy soil. While they were amid the growing flames, DeLaMater was selecting a grassy field on Wisconsin 77 for his fire headquarters. At first, this lonely area seemed like any ordinary grassy acre spotted by the occasional jack pine with the black top highway running along the north side. Soon it would be the hub of activity and the place where the fire organization would take place lasting over three days. It quickly filled with trucks, school buses, caterpillars, semi-trucks with huge low-boy trailers, hundreds of metal five gallon back-pack spray cans, and shovels from ranger stations all over the northwest. Roads in each direction were clogged with traffic and heavy equipment on trailers pulled by dump trucks waiting to be assigned a fire sector. All were converging near the Namekagon River, the Five Mile Creek and the Totagatic River.

It was the year of the citizen-band radio craze, and a CB radio made the first call reporting the fire was out of control. CBs were not utilized by the DNR. Fire boss DeLaMater used his DNR high band radios to contact rangers in the flames, to airplane pilot Jim Dienstl and the Cumberland Dispatch Center. DeLaMater was required to set up an instant fire headquarters and organize a fire organization to battle this fire, which was quickly getting out of control and raging northward no matter what was done to stop it. He was at war. Winds gusted and blew ever stronger from any direction -- because fires create their own winds -- howling blasts that fed the insatiable desire for more oxygen to incinerate the forest fuels. Burning in the path northeastward, the red, yellow and orange flames punched holes in the sky producing tornado-conditions and sending plumes of brown, grey, sometimes white, but mostly black smoke towering skyward so folks from 20 and 30 miles away could see it clearly.

The Cumberland Dispatch Center raced into action upon DeLaMater's first call, sending out requests by radio and telephone for every available DNR heavy unit, private contractor's Caterpillars and citizens to work on foot. The calls went out to sheriff's departments in three counties plus the State Patrol. Ambulances were called to report to fire headquarters as well as all conservation wardens in northwest Wisconsin. Everyone did what they could that day not realizing an organization of this magnitude, gather because of one match, had never happened before in Wisconsin's history. This was the largest fire in 106 years that was run by an organization-team and started from a single source.

During the first hour, the fire had leaped forward one mile and was not being stopped. DNR rangers organized quickly. A forest fire organization must take place in a matter of minutes and certainly within a few hours. There were doomsayers, negative individuals, critical comments and folks who thought more could be done. But when it was over, the Five Mile Tower Fire organization was used as a success training model at the National Advanced Resource Training Center in Arizona. The rate of spread of the Five Mile Tower Forest Fire was almost unprecedented in annals of fire history.

Quickly, tractor plow units came from the Brule Area, the Gordon Prison Camp crew was requested, Ladysmith tractor plow units arrived and the large D-7 Cat from Penta Wood Products in Siren was called. Several hundred more people showed up to fight fire, and the DNR Fish and Game crew was on the way.

By 6 p.m., the fire had crossed the county line into Douglas County and had traveled seven miles. And by 6:09 p.m., it was three miles wide: Time elapsed: 4 hours and 49 minutes; rate of spread: one mile burned every 41 minutes.

The U.S. Forest Service crew from Trego was called, as were all available National Guard dozers and more fuel trucks. In addition, hundreds of citizens and every volunteer fire department in the area showed up ready to fight into the night. Gordon and Minong Volunteer Fire Departments were the only ones in the immediate area, because the Chicog and Wascott Fire Departments were not yet formed in 1977.

DeLaMater had his overhead team working. Line boss Tom Roberts assigned DNR rangers and their tractor plow units to the various divisions as the fire progressed north. The dangerous right flank was fought by Forester and Stanek during the first three hours and later during the night ranger John Seino. The earth's rotation is counter clockwise, causing winds to be deflected to the right. The right side of a fast moving fire is always most dangerous. This is called the coriolis-effect and is very seriously considered in all large fires. The rule of thumb was to assign 50 percent of the resources to the right flank of a fire, 25 percent to the head of the fire, and 25 percent to the western flank.

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On the western side of the fire, divisions were led by rangers Greg St. Onge, Gene Miller, Tom Quilty and John Pohlman. Each of the division bosses were in harm's way along with all of his men, women, and pieces of equipment.

About two hours into the fire, the Totagatic River was jumped easily, like a deer flying over a four-foot garden fence. The fire flowed like molten lava on a volcano, stopping for nothing. The rangers, tractor plows and fire fighters were trying frantically to contain the edges and establish a fire line keeping the shape of the fire like an otter skin, long and narrow if possible. After burning for three miles, the fire passed to within a half mile of Lake Nancy. Heroic efforts were engaged to keep the flames from bending to the right all the way north to Nancy Lake Road. It burned around South Twin Lake and jumped the Five Mile Creek at 4:45 p.m. It had blackened an area almost two miles wide and four miles long after burning for only three hours.

The rangers would take great pains to double and triple up the fire ditches, then use a large dozer to make a lane wide enough to drive a 4x4 pick up so later the fire edges could be patrolled. It eventually took 43 miles of caterpillar dug fire line to encircle the fire.

Adams was assigned the position of plans boss. During the fire, he gathered intelligence on the speed and direction of the fire and advised the fire boss on tactics. He projected the path, looked at the maps provided by staff members and suggested places where the fire could be narrowed by the expeditious use of manpower and equipment.

Meanwhile at fire headquarters, using his automobile hood, Ralph Mortier, who worked in Spooner as the DNR forest management staff specialist, took the position as intelligence officer on the fire. He used maps and his knowledge of forest timber types to plot the path of the fire.

When the fire was into its second hour, the smoke was 10,000 feet high, and the cities and towns were emptying of men and women going to the fire.

Something amazing started happening. It began at the home of Kathy Scott, wife of the Minong ranger, continued at Kathy Fraatz's house with the help of Nancy Block, then spread to become the largest, most extensive sandwich shop in all of Wisconsin. Grocery stores were contacted; Link Bros. IGA, Dewing's Super Value, and the Solon Springs Market supplied truck loads of bread, freshly sliced bologna, cheese by the box loads and peanut butter by the gross to sites where hundreds of people started making sandwiches for those fighting the fire. Loads of the Five Mile version of "meals on wheels" were delivered to the hungry, thirsty, dirty, dusty and blackened fire fighters.

Bill Matthias is writing a book about the Five Mile Tower Forest Fire. If you would like to tell him your story about this fire, feel free to contact him at 941-474-2816 or 715-466-2500 or e-mail at: billmatthias@hotmail.com

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