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On Monday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency due to rampant wildfires consuming 1,400 acres of land in just the first three months of 2021. As historic (and maybe permanent) droughts move further east, Wisconsin finds itself in a perilous situation. Nearly the entire state is at a high risk of fire and now, the National Guard has been called in to fight these devastating fires from the air. Experts say that residents should expect an extra-long wildfire season this year.
Why This Matters: Wildfires aren’t unheard of in Wisconsin.
The current fires haven’t yet reached that level, but climate change, shorter winters, and drought may mean another once-in-a-decade fire is just around the corner. Donal O’Leary, a geographer at the University of Maryland explained, “we are 95 percent confident there is a relationship between snow and wildfire.”
The American West has already seen reduced snowfall in winter; a 2018 study found that the annual maximum snowfall in 13% of the West had decreased by 41%. As drought moves West and weather systems carry snow further south, Midwestern states like Wisconsin could see a big uptick in wildfires going forward, and local communities may not be prepared.
Flame Point: In 2020, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources reported a total of 782 wildfires that burned a whopping 1,630 acres of land. In only 3 months, 2021 has seen almost half that with a recorded 340 fires. This past week alone there have been 149 wildfires blazing across the state.
“With nearly the entire state experiencing high or very high fire risk, protecting Wisconsinites from the destructive dangers of wildfires is a top priority,” said Evers in a statement. Even easternmost counties bordering Lake Michigan and Illinois were on alert, and residents were warned to refrain from outdoor burning practices like campfires (and maybe gender reveal parties too, just to be safe) and burning permits for debris, barrels, and grass have been suspended.
The National Guard will be deploying Blackhawk helicopters to fight the fires from above, while the state’s firefighters tackle them from the ground. “The ability of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to have all available resources ready to be quickly dispatched is a critical element in keeping fires small and achieving swift containment,” said Evers. With the assistance of the national guard, Evers and Wisconsin residents hope for a swift recovery. But it’s not just Wisconsin feeling the heat. Neighboring North Dakota is also issuing high fire risk warnings for residents across the state and just two weeks ago, raging fires in South Dakota prompted Mount Rushmore to close its gates.
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