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Wisconsin fire's wrath was swift, severe

A mobile home across the road from Bob Gotalaere's home near Barnes, Wis., burned to the ground while a home next door owned by Darrell Keene (in the background) survived the wildfire. Bob King/Duluth News Tribune

BARNES, Wis. -- Bob Gotelaere's outhouse was still on fire Wednesday morning when he drove around roadblocks to check his home near Ellison Lake.

But Gotelaere was surprised to find that the outhouse was all he lost in Wisconsin's largest forest fire in 33 years.

"There was too much fire, so we just ran. I have no idea why this all didn't burn," he said while surveying his property. The fire came through after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and burned right up to his garage -- even the grass under his four-wheeler had scorched. The woods around his home were charred.

Several of Gotelaere's neighbors weren't so lucky, including his brother-in-law, who owned a mobile home across the road that burned to the ground. It was one of 47 structures, including 17 cabins and homes, destroyed in the fast-moving fire Tuesday night.

No injuries have been reported. The fire was expected to be 100 percent contained, with a bulldozer line around the perimeter, late Wednesday. But it could be several days until it's officially under control with no active fire.

The fire was first reported just after 2 p.m. Tuesday near Germann Road southeast of Solon Springs, starting at an active logging site, possibly spurred by sparks from machinery or vehicles. Southwest winds gusting to 30 mph pushed it fast to the northeast, jumping across acres of sandy soil jackpine and red pine plantations as it went. At one point it raced two miles in less than an hour.

By 8 p.m. the wind switched out of the west, then the northwest, and turned the fire straight east toward Barnes, a scattered collection of homes, cabins, small resorts, taverns and deer shacks along Wisconsin Highway 27.

In all, the fire burned across an estimated 9,000 acres in a mosaic of damage along eight miles, not all destroyed or consumed as some reports have suggested. Some areas were hardly burned while others were charred, leaving miles of blackened trees and ground.

The fire burned so hot that aluminum siding 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 guardrails 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 have helped with the fire.

"The fire department crews worked all night, and they saved 77 structures, including 42 homes," said Larry Glodoski, incident commander of the firefighting effort for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "They did their triage ... and then tried to save the homes and cabins they thought had a chance."

The fire jumped Wisconsin Highway 27 about 8 p.m., said Lisa and Reid Welhaven, who rode around on an ATV Wednesday morning surveying the damage just north of Barnes. That damage included several of their friends' homes that had burned to the ground on the east side of the highway near the Douglas-Bayfield County line.

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.

"We thought we were safe, out of the way, but then the wind switched and everything went so fast. We weren't sure what to do, but we ended up OK," said Lisa Welhaven, whose home was less than a quarter-mile from the burned area but was not damaged by the fire. "We could hear people's gas tanks exploding during the night. ... It's just so sad to see all these people's houses burned down."

The fire came too fast for Danny Archambeau to do much of anything but evacuate his home near Loon Lake after 8 p.m.

"We thought the fire was going to go north of us," he said. "But when the wind switched it came at us so fast we had to run... I grabbed my guns, my mother-in-law and my wife, in that order, and we got out."

Twelve hours later, Archambeau was at the Drummond School with other evacuees and still hadn't learned whether their house had burned or been spared. He was asking anyone who might know.

He finally made his way back, despite authorities' warnings not to return, just after noon Wednesday.

"My home is fine. I'm on one side of Loon Lake Road and the fire stopped on the other side," he said. "I got lucky. But some of my neighbors' (homes) burned."

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, Glodoski told about 60 residents who had been evacuated from their homes and cabins that the fire had stopped growing but that it was still unsafe for them to go home. The Red Cross had helped shelter and feed about 22 people overnight in the Drummond School where Glodoski gave his update to homeowners eager for any news. The center was expected to stay open Wednesday night for anyone unable to return home, or with no home to return to.

"It's no longer progressing toward the east," Glodoski said to a round of applause. "It's stopped, and we want to keep it stopped."

Some homeowners were allowed back in to retrieve pets and medicine Wednesday, others snuck back home, and law enforcement officers rounded up several horses and dogs for their owners. But some people may not be allowed back to their homes and cabins until today, and only then after officials are confident the fire will not rekindle and grow.

In addition to ground crews, which peaked at about 150 people and 60 fire engines and bulldozers early Wednesday, Gov. Scott Walker sent two Black Hawk helicopters from the Wisconsin National Guard to help drop water on the fire. Two Ontario water-bombers arrived later Wednesday in an effort to drop tens of thousands of gallons of water, scooped from nearby lakes, onto the southeast flank of the fire perimeter -- the area Glodoski feared would become the new head of the fire if northwest winds breathed new life into it Wednesday afternoon.

That didn't happen, however, and the fire line held late Wednesday.

Town of Superior volunteer firefighter Tom Killian said he was paged to respond to the fire just after 10 p.m. Tuesday. At 7 a.m. Wednesday he was leaning against the tire of his fire truck, smoking a cigarette and taking his first break. Killian's fire engine crew spent the night putting out fires near as many homes as possible. He hadn't slept in more than 24 hours.

He said he would report to his regular day job, knowing he might be called back to spend another night mopping up hot spots.

The DNR says the Germann Road Fire is the largest wildfire in Wisconsin in 33 years, surpassing the 3,410-acre Cottonville Fire in 2005, although that fire burned some 300 structures. The last large fire in northern Wisconsin, called the Oak Lake Fire, was April 22, 1980, and burned across 11,418 acres.