Dozens Flee Wisconsin Forest Fire

A blaze that started as a brush fire burned at least 20 buildings -- and maybe as many as 50 -- and forced dozens to flee as it spread over almost 4,000 acres in central Wisconsin (search), state Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett said Friday.

Authorities had no reports of major injuries from the fire, which broke out Thursday afternoon in Big Flats (search) just north of the Adams-Friendship area. Nearly 100 people fled a 100-square-mile area, and the destroyed properties included summer cabins, year-round homes and trailers, Hassett said.

The blaze was not deliberately set, Hassett said, but he did not reveal the cause. Firefighters contained it overnight.

"This is the biggest pine forest fire in about 20 years," said Hassett, who did not immediately have an estimate of the damage.

Jackie Jones, 44, believes the fire destroyed her house because she had to drive through a "rolling ball of fire" just to escape. She said at one point, ashes falling from the sky looked like snow.

"God bless us, we're here. We lost probably everything," she said.

Gov. Jim Doyle (search), who surveyed the damage by helicopter Friday, said he saw many houses still standing. He later met with families evacuated from the area, near where a tornado killed two people and destroyed homes in 1994.

"They are all very anxious right now to get back in there and see what happened," he said.

Around 120 buildings, including homes, mobile homes, barns and sheds, were within the evacuation area along Highway 13 in Big Flats and Colburn in Adams County, said Jennifer Rabuck, fire information officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Though firefighters had contained the blaze, they still were battling hot spots Friday, said Diane Waite, a dispatcher at the Adams County Sheriff's Department. Some early rains helped.

About two dozen people spent the night at an evacuation center at Pine Land Elementary School in Adams County, where they were given food, bedding and clothes, as well as medication for those needing it, said Julie Schoening, emergency services coordinator for the Portage County Red Cross.

"Once we have a better idea of the status of their homes, we'll be working with (evacuees) on food and long-term needs, housing," Schoening said Friday.

Jeanne Surlaski, 53, wiped away tears after learning her house was still standing Friday. She said she marveled 11 years ago when the tornado missed her home.

"This time I was lucky again," she said.

Some people reported seeing flames shooting 120 feet into the air, said Trent Marty, head of the state's forest protection bureau.

Twenty area fire departments and 250 firefighters with 60 pieces of equipment worked on the blaze, and the state Department of Natural Resources dispatched 30 bulldozer units with plows to cut a swath through the flames and prevent the fire's advance, agency spokesman Bob Manwell said.

The Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative said the fire consumed electric poles and damaged or destroyed transformers and other electric equipment, including 25 to 30 miles of electric line, cutting power to around 210 customers.

Workers could likely restore power to about 70 of them Friday morning once government officials allowed them into the area, spokesman Keith Wohlfert said. But he said homes at the heart of the fire would not have power until the electric lines could be rebuilt.

Primo Clementi, 57, and his wife, Lorraine, fled their Big Flats home with their daughter, Lisa Clementi, 37, and granddaughter, Echo Hoffman, 19. The family saw smoke as they drove home from a doctor's appointment in Wisconsin Rapids.

"We don't have insurance, and that's what made my heart sink," Lorraine Clementi told the Daily Tribune of Wisconsin Rapids. "And then we stopped and prayed at the side of the road, and I know my house is protected."