Ekdall Church-Oak Lake Fires

April 21 and 22, 2005, marked the 25th anniversary of two very significant wildfires in Wisconsin. During those two days in 1980, the Ekdall Church fire and Oak Lake fire burned more than 16,000 acres in northwestern Wisconsin.

Remains of Burned Home
More than 200 buildings were lost in the Ekdall Church and Oak Lake fires of 1980

More significant than the acres burned was that these fires destroyed 118 homes and cabins and 114 garages and outbuildings.

Setting the Stage

A few days in April changed the fire season in 1980 from routine to significant. The state was finally free of the drought of 1976-77. Precipitation in northwestern Wisconsin had been average in 1978-79 and while 1980 started out relatively dry, 11 days prior to the fires the ground was completely snow covered. By April 15, the snow was gone and a dry Hudson Bay high pressure system had stagnated over the area causing warmer than normal temperatures and very low relative humidities. By April 19, fire conditions had gotten to the point that all burning permits were suspended. On April 20, severe fire behavior observed on several fires prompted DNR area leaders to begin the process of implementing "Emergency Fire Regulations." These regulations would have increased public awareness while prohibiting many activities that could start a wildfire. In 1980, the process of enacting Emergency Fire Regulations took time to be put into effect. Before the regulations could be put in place, the Hudson Bay high pressure system began to move out of the area and the last component needed to set the stage for large fires moved in - wind.

Monday April 21, 1980

The Ekdall Church fire began around 12:20 pm on the western side of Burnett County, eight miles north of the village of Grantsburg. Eight minutes after the fire was reported, DNR and fire department units were on the scene, which was roughly 1.5 acres in size and burning with extreme intensity in light scrub oak slash (debris left over from a wood harvesting project).

Charred Forest

Tractor plow units were quickly put to work on each side of the fire (the "flanks"). As the first tractor plow was completing a fire break ("fire line") around the head of the fire, the operator observed several wind blown embers starting new fires ("spot" fires) across his fire line in a young pine plantation. The second tractor plow attempted to catch the spot fires. With the wind blowing the fire into the tops of the 20-foot-tall pine stand, the second tractor plow operator was quickly overrun by the fire and received second-degree burns while making his escape on foot. The first tractor plow continued around the rear of the fire and began building a fire break on the opposite flank of the fire. Within a short while this fire line was also lost to spot fires and the operator had to retreat to safety. Meanwhile, fire departments and DNR wildlife units attempted to suppress the head of the fire, but with the fire now a "crown fire" (burning in the tree tops) and winds in excess of 20 mph pushing it, this tactic proved futile. Additional DNR resources that could have helped to contain the fire were tied up on two other fires in the area that day.

During the course of the fire, shifting winds were a constant problem. There were several times when 20-foot-wide fire lines did not hold. By 3 pm, the head of the fire was more than four miles from where it began and spreading at 1,000-1,600 acres an hour. By 7 pm, the head of the fire reached the Kohler Peat area adjacent to the St. Croix River. This wet area largely stopped the forward spread of the fire and allowed firefighters to get a handle on the fire and complete fire lines around the perimeter.

In the end, the Ekdall Church fire ran nine miles in less than eight hours. At its widest point, the fire front was 2.5 miles wide. Fifteen DNR tractor plow units, seven fire departments, 27 private, county and National Guard bulldozers as well as scores of volunteers and cooperators from other county, state and federal agencies were utilized in containment of the fire.

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While 73 homes, cabins, and outbuildings were destroyed in the blaze, another 65 buildings were saved as a result of firefighter actions. The cause of the Ekdall Church fire was determined to be accidental in nature.

Tuesday April 22, 1980

The morning of April 22 found only skeleton crews staffing DNR stations in Washburn and Burnett counties as a majority of resources were committed back to the Ekdall fire. At 10:30 am a fire was reported in Siren. Units from Webster, Spooner, and the Ekdall Church fire were dispatched to this new fire.

At 11:26 am a fire was reported in Chicog Township in Washburn county, about 11 miles west of the village of Minong. The only resources available in the area were one DNR tractor plow unit from Minong, another enroute from Gordon, and a local fire department. Due to the location of the fire and the severe conditions, a task force of resources that had been assigned to the fire in Siren, an Incident Commander (IC, or the person in charge of the suppression effort), and resources from Douglas county were started in the direction of the fire. While enroute, the IC placed an additional order for seven DNR Rangers and 10 DNR tractor plow units as well as more Fire Departments and a full Incident Management Team.

Even with the meager resources that initially attacked the fire, a tenuous containment was obtained with a single plow furrow. At this point, the wind increased in strength and switched directions. The fire easily jumped the road and spread into some highly flammable slash and jack pine trees. With the heavy wind pushing the fire into the tops of the trees, it quickly grew beyond the capability of the fire department and tractor plow unit to contain it before additional resources could arrive and provide assistance.

During the first three hours of the Oak Lake fire, it jumped the Namekagon River 3 times causing extreme difficulty in moving equipment around to access the eastern side of the fire. This problem was only exacerbated by traffic jams of citizens evacuating the area, sightseers, and fire equipment. Fire lines along the flanks were difficult to hold.

Night during Day
Heavy smoke turned day into night

Spot fires were documented 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The wind kept smoke low to the ground making visibility, breathing, and evacuating citizens difficult for firefighters. The heavy smoke turned day into night as far away as 30 miles, where street lights in Rice Lake came on in mid-afternoon due to the darkness.

By 3:30 pm the fire was over six miles long and had a flaming front over 3 miles wide as it hit the northwest side of Island Lake. This is where the majority of the structures were lost. To add to the complexity of the incident, when the fire reached Island Lake and Big Casey Lake, the head of the fire split into 3 separate sections.

At 6 pm, the fire front hit County Hwy E about 3.5 miles south of Island Lake. Although several spot fires started south of the road, with much effort, Hwy E held the main portion of the fire. As evening wore on, the wind and extreme fire behavior died down and firefighters continued working to get fire lines completed along the flanks and within scattered areas in the cluster of lakes.

Fire threatens home
Flying embers threatened homes 1.5 miles ahead of the Oak Lake fire

When the fire was officially declared controlled three days later, it was estimated that it had run 11 miles in just over six hours. In the end, more than 2,000 firefighters worked the Oak Lake fire, including 23 fire departments, 52 DNR fire trucks, 30 DNR tractor plow units and 52 federal, county and privately owned bulldozers. While 159 structures (homes, cabins & outbuildings) were lost in the fire, an estimated 254 were saved as a direct result of firefighter actions. While a cause was never determined for the Oak Lake fire, it was thought to most likely be equipment related.

The area today

Much of the area around the Ekdall and Oak Lake fires has regenerated to a jack pine forest type - considered to be the most flammable tree species in the Lake States. Today, 25 years after the fire, these trees are about 25 feet tall and create a very hazardous situation for firefighters.

Residential and recreational properties have continued to increase in the fire areas as they have in rural areas across Wisconsin and the nation. It is estimated that there are nearly double the structures in the fire areas today than in 1980.

Much wildfire research has been carried out in the last two decades. For a long time, it was believed that structures in the path of a wildfire were mostly ignited by the passing fire front.<./p>

The area today
The Oak Lake fire area 25 years later

Now we understand that the majority of homes lost in a wildfire are ignited by "the little things," such as flying embers that land in accumulated leaves and pine needles on a roof, in a firewood stack, or under a deck. Houses are also lost when spot fires create surface fires, bringing low intensity, but persistent flames right up to buildings.

Even with improvements made during the last 25 years, firefighters understand that many homes will be lost during a major wildfire. In areas where housing numbers are high, firefighters will simply be outnumbered and in great danger when an intense and fast-spreading wildfire passes through. In addition, characteristics of a given property such as poor access for large fire trucks, heavy forest fuels within 30 feet of buildings, un-maintained yards, and accumulation of flammables on and around the structure often doom the property to damage or destruction even with firefighter protection.

Research conducted after wildfires across the country show that actions taken by homeowners to "Firewise" their property plays the largest role in their home surviving a wildfire. While much has changed in the fire service to improve safety and effectiveness, the sad fact is that many homeowners do little or nothing to protect their home from wildfire.

Last Revised: Monday July 30 2007