MILWAUKEE — Authorities are investigating whether logging operations may have sparked a massive wildfire in northwestern Wisconsin that destroyed dozens of buildings and forced at least 60 people from their homes, state officials said Wednesday.
The wildfire has consumed about 8,700 to 9,000 acres in Douglas and Bayfield County but is about 90 to 95 percent contained, meaning firefighters have largely arrested the spread of the fire, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
"I would say we are really close to having this fire in hand," DNR spokesman Robert Manwell said Wednesday afternoon. "We are probably going to be here for another 36, 48 hours doing mop up, taking care of hotspots, things of that kind."
No injuries have been reported in the largest forest fire to hit northern Wisconsin in 33 years, according to the DNR.
Winds were expected shift from northwest to west, which could help push fire from more populated areas, according to the DNR.
The DNR was even expected to start taking people back to their properties Wednesday to check on damage and retrieve pets and supplies, Manwell said.
Officials were investigating whether a spark from logging equipment could have started the fire around 2:30 p.m. near Simms Lake in Douglas County, said DNR spokesman Ed Culhane said.
At least 60 people have evacuated their homes and 22 of them stayed overnight at a high school in Drummond, 60 miles southeast of Duluth, Minn., the DNR said. Forty-seven structures were destroyed, including 17 homes, but firefighters were able to save 77 other buildings, according to the DNR.
Danny Archambeau told the Duluth News Tribune Wednesday morning that he evacuated his home near Ellison Lake at 8 p.m. Tuesday. He didn't know at that time if his house had damage.
"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."
DNR spokeswoman Catherine Koele said they planned work throughout Wednesday night on the fire and monitor the fire line and put out hot spots on Thursday. She said they would also continue investigating the fire's cause. Winds were expected to be calmer Thursday, which would help but conditions are expected to be dry, she said.
She said expected the evacuation center at Drummond High School to be open for a second night Wednesday for evacuees in need of a place to stay.
Continued dry and windy weather pushed much of the state into the "very high" wildfire danger range prompting the DNR to suspend burning permits statewide. The DNR and National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for Florence and Marinette counties, which means large forest fires were possible due to the weather conditions.
"We're urging extreme caution in all outdoor activities," Trent Marty, director of DNR Bureau of Forest Protection, said in a news release.
"We cannot afford another big fire today," he said.
The last major forest fire in northern Wisconsin happened on April 22, 1980 and consumed nearly 11,500 acres of forest. A central Wisconsin fire in May 2005 also burned more than 3,400 acres.
A shelter and a fire command post were set up in the village of Barnes Tuesday evening, but they were moved as the fire grew. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation closed state Highway 27 after the fire hopped over it northwest of Barnes Tuesday. The highway was reopened Wednesday.
Manwell said two Black Hawk helicopters from the Wisconsin Army National Guard and two "waterbombers" fixed-wing aircraft from Canada were assisting firefighter with aerial support Wednesday. Crews from 19 fire departments and 52 fire trucks are in the field, the DNR has said.
Kyle Kriegl, regional executive officer at the Red Cross, said mental health professional services were available for evacuees at the high school.
"It's a range of emotions that people go through, especially when you are not sure whether your home is being destroyed," he said.