Forest fire destroys 30 homes in Wisconsin

Saturday, May 7, 2005

BIG FLATS, Wis. -- A fast-moving forest fire destroyed 30 homes and forced dozens to flee as it spread to almost 4,000 acres before being contained overnight, officials said Friday. No major injuries were reported.

The fire -- described as the largest wildfire in Wisconsin in 25 years -- swept across nearly 3,900 acres, Big Flats Fire Chief Dick Meyers said. About 125 families were evacuated.

More than 200 homes and businesses lost electricity as the flames consumed utility poles, damaged transformers and burned at least 25 miles of power lines.

The blaze in rural Adams County began Thursday when a landowner started a small fire to clear grass before building a campfire, said Steve Courtney, a Natural Resources incident commander.

Along with the homes, the fire destroyed camper-trailers and other outbuildings, Fire Chief Dick Meyers said. Gov. Jim Doyle, who surveyed the damage by helicopter, said he saw many houses still standing.

Jackie Jones, 44, said she had to drive through a "rolling ball of fire" to escape and saw ashes falling from the sky like snow.

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

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

After his helicopter tour, the governor 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.

Jeanne Surlaski, 53, wiped away tears after learning Friday that her house had been spared, as it was during the tornado 11 years ago. "I was lucky again," she said.

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