Where there’s snow, there’s no fire.
Once snow covers the ground, the chance of a forest fire is low, Megan Mickelson, Monroe County forest liaison/private lands forester for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said.
“Once snow covers the fuel that can burn, there’s not really a chance of fire unless some of the fuel is uncovered,” she said. “Fire’s not going to go through a lawn that’s covered in snow, or forest canopy where a bunch of leaves are on the ground and are covered in snow. It pretty much goes to nothing.”
Eric Zenz, Department of Natural Resources forestry team leader for Black River Falls, agrees that the chance of a forest fire in Wisconsin during the winter is minimal but not impossible. Wisconsin has had forest fires in every month of the year.
“Generally, winter in Wisconsin is a time where we don’t have any concern about forest fires, but if we go through a period where we have a warm-up and then snow melts and (vegetation) is uncovered, we could have a fire in winter,” he said.
In Wisconsin, a common cause of winter forest fires is individuals clearing hot ash from wood stoves, Zenz said.
“To prevent these forest fires, folks should empty the ashes into a metal container and hold the ashes until completely cold and extinguished,” he said.
Another cause of winter forest fires is brush piles, Zenz said. Winter is the safest time to burn them as the snow around the pile stops the fire from spreading into the woods.
“After burning brush piles, homeowners need to check their piles to ensure their fire is completely out,” he said. “Every year forest fires are started in the spring by burn piles that were started in the winter but not completely extinguished. The fire can hold over for months deep in the ground until a windy day blows hot embers into the woods starting a forest fire. Homeowners should stir the ash of their burn piles with a shovel to ensure there is no heat deep in the ground. Mixing snow in the ash will also help to ensure the burn pile is completely extinguished.”
A dry winter can start the fire season early, Mickelson said.
“(A fire could start) if there’s not a lot of snow cover and not a lot of melt water to keep the ground saturated,” she said. “So unless it’s rainy, it can cause an early fire season for us. Lack of snow and lack of rain play into it.”
While historically Wisconsin has not had to worry about winter forest fires, the same cannot be said everywhere. Zenz said, “Forest fires may be a year-round thing around the country.”
Other regions still have the potential to burn, she said, such as California, which is experiencing a devastating fire season.
Steps can be taken by homeowners to prevent property damage due to a forest fire, Zenz said.
“Homeowners can protect their property from forest fires by removing flammable vegetation away from their houses, and replace flammable landscape mulch with landscape rock,” he said. These actions will prevent a forest fire from burning close to the home and will reduce the possibility of the home catching fire from the forest fire.”