Germann Road Fire: One Year Later

Updated: 05/13/2014 11:16 PM
Created: 05/13/2014 11:57 AM
By: Maarja Anderson

Deep in the woods on a dead-end road, lives June Thielen, a spitfire of a woman who drives a Hemi, a tractor, and a Harley.

But last year, everything she owned and her life were in jeopardy when one of Wisconsin's largest wildfires in 33 years swept across parts of Douglas and Bayfield counties.

"It's like what do you say to a guy that saved your life? Thank you? Thank you from the bottom of my heart. That just didn't seem enough,"she said.

June now calls DNR Conservation Warden Lance Burns her angel. He got June out of her house on May 14, as flames made their way towards her home.

"I never saw Lance, I never saw him afterwards. I felt so bad, I would cry and cry and cry because I wanted to find the angel that saved my life," explained June.

She had been sleeping that afternoon when she heard a loud knock on her door.

"I remember talking with a couple of the other deputies and I said I know that there's a permanent residence down that long driveway and I'm going to head back there,"said Burns.

June said it was so hot and smoky, she never even realized it was Lance who saved her life. They've known each other for 15 years.

For saving June's life, Governor Scott Walker honored Lance with the Life Saving award. 

June's house was untouched, but her garage burned to the ground. Inside was her tractor, lawn mower, and family heirlooms. June has since rebuilt her garage.

The Germann Road Fire destroyed over 100 buildings, 23 were primary residences. The DNR said the blaze started from a logging crew harvesting timber and eventually burned 7,442 acres.

According to Douglas County 22 building permits have been issued since the May 2013 fire. Six of those permits are for a house or cabin.

Tom and Carol Plant are one of the families rebuilding their cabin. They finished last November.

"From a 50-year-old cabin to a new one, you know, we have to be happy," said Tom.

They're thrilled with their newer, bigger, and better cabin, but losing all their memories was heartbreaking. Tom had visited that cabin since 1948. Although they live in southern Wisconsin, they spend their summers on Sand Lake.

They didn't find out they'd lost their home away from home until the day after the fire.

"So your first reaction is that, 'okay, hurry up, hurry up, we're going to get up there. There's going to be something to pull out, something to save,' and you get up here and there's nothing to save, nothing at all," said Carol.

All that was left of their cabin was a chimney.

It's taken some time and support from friends and family, but they say they've been able to move on.

"When we think of all the photo albums, all the logs we kept for deer hunting and fishing, that part hurts a little, but we are passed that," said Tom.

Sand Lake and Ellison Lake, just south of Sand, were not in the direct path of the fire until the wind shifted and the flames hopped over Highway 27. Some have chosen not to rebuild, but today there are signs of new beginnings all around.

One home owned by Deanna Glinski on Ellison Lake is just about finished. Like many of the homes lost, the chimney was all that remained.

Although homes were lost, 350 structures were saved with help from the Wisconsin DNR, 40-plus fire departments and more than 30 other agencies .

The fire started just before 3:00 p.m. on May 14. It was a wind-driven fire burning a swath seven miles long and four miles wide. By 9:00 p.m. the next day, crews had the fire fully contained.

The DNR headed up operations at the Gordon fire hall. Gordon fire chief Mike Chmielecki helped coordinate all the different fire departments out in the field.

"[It was] pretty hectic, pretty busy. There were quite a few different departments that helped out on the fire," said the chief.

Although safe from the Germann Road Fire, it was not entirely immune to fire itself. In September the Gordon fire hall burned down, leaving only a flag pole and a siren behind.

But Chmielecki said they they will be breaking ground this week. The community has rallied together and they are expected to have a new fire hall completed this September.

Like those rebuilding and starting over, DNR Forestry Supervisor Jay Gallagher said the forest itself is also recovering.

"The fire, even though we don't want that kind of thing to go on with people living here and that, in this barrens landscape, fire is a very much part of that landscape," explained Gallagher.

Some of the charred trees on timber land have been logged off, but for those that remain, it offers new habitat for animals.

On her 60 acres on her dead-end road, June has removed her burned trees, but not to remove the fire from her memory.

"When you go through a traumatic experience you don't want to dismiss it from your mind," she said.

Where the huge oak trees once stood, she's creating a garden. With her tractor, she built it all by herself and soon, she will add some sculptures made from one of the few things that survived the flames: two-man saws.

One year ago, her yard was blackened and destroyed, but now something new, a fire memorial, to help her heal.

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