Sept. 11--A timber company that owns most of the Douglas County land burned in May in the state's largest forest fire in more than three decades estimates damage at $1 million or more.
"It's going to end with a 'million,' I just don't know if it's going to be a 1, 2 or 3," Sean Ross, director of forestry operations for the Lyme St. Croix Timber Co., said Wednesday.
In a report released this week, the Department of Natural Resources described how a logging crew that caused the state's worst fire in 33 years was ill-prepared when the blaze quickly grew out of control.
The fire on May 14-15 started when wood debris from a tree-cutting machine owned by Ray Duerr Logging of Rib Lake caught fire in the machine's circulating blade, setting the tinder-dry ground afire.
An equipment operator tried to put out the small grass fire with a hand extinguisher, a bottle of water and bottle of Gatorade and then used his tree-cutting machine to run over the flames, according to the report.
The operator told investigators he thought the fire was under control but then watched as it spread quickly 30 to 40 yards to a pile of cut jack pine, which burst into flames.
"The forest fire then became a running crown fire with a separate surface fire beneath," wrote DNR fire investigators Gary Bibow and James (Eric) Grudzinski.
Only later during a June 27 meeting did DNR and others learn that the tree-cutting machine had a pressurized water system on board and the logging crew also tried using it. But water pressure was too low to spray water.
When Ross arrived at the scene a few days later, the "scale of it was a little shocking when you drive in it -- it goes for miles," said Ross, whose company is based in Hanover, N.H., and bought the land from Wausau Paper Co. in December 2011.
The fire burned 7,442 acres over an area 10 miles long and a mile and half wide.
On the day of the fire, the DNR investigators described weather conditions that quickly became fire prone. At 6 a.m., it was 32 degrees. By 11 a.m., there had been brief rain and it hit 54 degrees with 76% humidity.
When the fire started three hours later, it was 82 degrees. Humidity had fallen to 26%. Winds were kicking up from the southeast at 12 miles per hour.
When a DNR fire ranger arrived at the scene a half-hour after the fire started, the saw on the tree-cutting machine was still smoking. In its investigation, the DNR ruled out other causes: Lightning strikes, campfires, smoking, burning debris and fireworks.
The timber company sustained damage to most of its 5,200 acres. Some trees were salvaged, but most were lost, according to Ross.
The property, like most timber land, was not insured for fire damage, Ross said.
The company is still trying to estimate the total costs, which will include replanting costs where it is needed. Planting expenses usually run about $200 per acre, Ross said.
Officials in Douglas County say they don't have an value of the losses to homes. The DNR said 47 structures were destroyed, including cabins and vacation homes.
On Monday, the DNR said the logging company was responsible for the fire and that employees withheld information about details after the fire broke out. The DNR charged Duerr $600,000 for costs associated with firefighting.
Ross said it is unclear whether the company will seek damages from Duerr.
Bill Grunewald, an attorney for Duerr, said he wasn't prepared to make a statement on Wednesday.
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