Outside the Classroom - The wildfires of Lyndon Station

by Julie Mecikalski

During the spring of 1980, the northern midwest states suffered from a very unseasonably hot, dry, season resulting in numerous wildfires. Temperatures were climbing in the 90s or higher setting record temperatures at that time. In the first four months of 1980, it was reported that Wisconsin had 411 fires recorded and nearly 24,000 acres of grass and woodland areas were destroyed by fire. In comparison, only 1,622 acres burned in all of 1978. At that time, Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources put emergency restrictions on outdoor burning banning open fires, burning barrels, and brush burning.

On April 21-22, northwestern Wisconsin counties of Burnett and Washburn had two large wildfires resulting in over 15,000 acres destroyed. At the same time, Juneau County was experiencing two wildfires that closed about 20 miles of Interstate 90/94 from Mauston to Rocky Arbor State Park due to thick, heavy smoke and needed to be rerouted onto U.S. Hwy. 12 & WI Hwy. 16. Two traffic crashes resulted from the dense smoke.

The fire destroyed some rural homes, two trucks, and a lumberyard before it was controlled. One of the trucks was a state-owned vehicle that was involved in a minor crash and left parked in the path of the moving fire. The other crash involved two vehicles which collided when one of the cars slowed down in the smoke and was struck from behind by another vehicle.

It was believed the fired was caused by a spark from a passing freight train. Employees at Stan’s Industrial Woodwork (victim of the January 2018 fire) in Lyndon Station had noticed the fire and immediately contacted authorities. In addition, was observed by onlookers that the train had stopped about a mile from the start of the fire and also contacted fire officials.

One of the wildfires occurred just south and east of Lyndon Station which destroyed a local sawmill. The other fire, considered to be smaller, yet out of control, was between Lyndon Station and Mauston. This fire—known as the Lyndon Station fire—quickly became out of control due to the extremely dry conditions—dry soil, gusty winds, no rain, and high temperatures. At one point, the Village of Lyndon Station was in danger from the fire when 20 miles per hour winds whipped the flames in all directions before eventually heading toward the Dells.

Firefighters responded from the Town of Kildare (Lyndon Station), Mauston, Reedsburg, Elroy, Wisconsin Dells, and DNR units. They battled the blaze from Lyndon Station to the Wisconsin River. It was reported that this fire was the biggest fire in Juneau County since a wildfire took a similar path in the Lyndon Station area in 1956 (some sources state 1957).

History repeated itself in June 1988, when a similar wildfire ripped through the Lyndon Station area destroying 1200-1600 acres of grass and woodland areas. The environmental conditions were very similar—dry land, high temperatures, little to no rain over in the three months prior, and gusty winds of over 25 mph.

It also resulted in closing 20 miles of Interstate 90-94 between Mauston and Wisconsin Dells because of heavy smoke. Hwy. 12 & 16 was also partially closed due to the dense smoke. Sources stated it was believed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources personnel that the fire started near one of the rest areas by a camper truck along the Interstate that had caught fire. The gusty winds quickly spread the fire among the dry debris and foliage. About 300 to 400 firefighters helped battle the destructive fire. Then-Governor Tommy Thompson visited the area after the fire was extinguished to check out damages.

Four homes were destroyed in that fire while 25 others were saved by firefighters. Several people were evacuated from area homes and motels and placed in area churches and the Court House Annex until the fire was contained. Firefighters had dug six-foot trenches around the Lyn-Dells Motel as it was in danger of succumbing to the fire. Fortunately, the fire stopped at the trenches and the motel was saved. There were no deaths; however, four people—three of them were firefighters—were injured from the fire. One firefighter reported chest pains and was transported to a local hospital. Two firefighters were bumped by vehicles due to lack of visibility in the thick smoke. A fourth man was struck by a falling tree limb.

It was noted that then-Juneau County Sheriff Gervase Thompson reported the wooden bottom of a 1960 pickup truck started on fire and the driver was alerted to the blaze by a motorist behind him was flashing his headlights. The driver pulled over and took jugs of water from his truck to put out the fire along with the assistance of motorists who stopped to use fire extinguishers. Unfortunately, the fire with help from the wind was too severe to put out. Thompson was quoted as saying it was believed this truck started five fires in the Lyndon Station area—three to the west and two to the east of the Village—when the burning boards fell from the truck. Only melted aluminum was left from the wreckage of the truck.