Warden switches from fish patrol to fire rescue in a flash
Conservation Warden Ron Nerva was on his way to survey a remote Lincoln County fishing spot off a back highway on May 5 when he spotted a parked van missing its driver – and that’s about when he saw the grass on fire near the county forest.
Warden Nerva’s Sunday afternoon just detoured from fishing patrol to fire rescue. “I knew the guy was out there,” Nerva said. Plus, he knew the guy out there.
Nerva also knew what to do. He made a quick call for back-up to Department of Natural Resources Forest Ranger Mike Leitz of Tomahawk, and then took off on a rapid foot search for the local man.
“I noticed the fire had probably started 200 to 300 yards south of where it was burning,” Nerva said, adding there was garbage strewn about the area. “I figured he probably tried to burn his garbage. Then, I saw the gasoline can on the logging road, which wasn’t a good sign.”
He followed the tracks and came upon some smoldering clothes, and he could see footprints in the ash showing the man had tried to extinguish the fire with his feet.
Still, no man.
Nerva followed the fire’s path and made circles in the area until he started to hear something. “It was somebody moaning,” he said.
Nerva picked up his pace and until he spotted the man - on the ground, breathing but in need of medical attention.
“The fire was burning around him – about 10 feet from him,” Nerva said. “It is pretty wet up here in Lincoln County so the fire wasn’t moving very fast, which helped.”
Nerva worked fast and was able to call local law enforcement to coordinate the emergency response to get help to the man while keeping the approaching fire from them. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office soon was on site with its county ambulance crew and a helicopter to quickly get the man to an area hospital.
Conservation Warden Rick Peters, based in nearby Merrill, said it wasn’t only timing that was in play with Warden Nerva’s actions Sunday afternoon. “Observation, investigative skills and quick decision-making on Ron’s part brought help there to give this man a fighting chance,” Peters said of Nerva’s effective response.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department told local reporters if “the warden had not come along, the gentleman probably wouldn’t have been lucky enough to survive” the fire.
Nerva says while the wardens’ top priorities in the spring are everything related to fishing, the wildfire season also is on their radar. And the wardens work to support the efforts of DNR forest fire rangers by also spreading their wildfire safety messages.
“We are out there working pretty hard right now and we run into a lot of people burning,” Nerva said. “I tell them you have to have a permit and you must follow those restrictions.”
Nerva says a lot of these fires, like the one on May 5, are linked to failures to follow permit restrictions or to misjudgments about a situation. “People don’t understand how quickly things get can away from you,” he says of wildfires. “If it does happen and a fire starts, don’t try to put it out yourself. Get out of there and call for help.”
Warden Nerva and the DNR Forest Fire Rangers remind you to remember burning is a risky maneuver in the spring. Why? Because it’s peak fire season. That’s why it is important to get the proper burning permit and follow the restrictions. If you do burn according to your permit’s restrictions, make sure you have fire control tools, such as a shovel and water, nearby.
The Division of Forestry says in the last week or so since 79 wildfires burned 77 acres in DNR protection areas, which covers about half the state. The majority of the fires, like the one on May 5, were kept to less than one acre. The largest was a 16-acre Price County fire caused when a debris pile, burned several weeks earlier, reignited and escaped into grass and pine fuels after the snow had melted.
Warden Nerva and Forester Ranger Lietz remind all that if outdoor burning is your last alternative, remember a free annual burning permit is required to burn small piles of debris and to burn in a burn barrel in DNR Protection Areas.
Get yourself current about the daily burning restrictions, too. It’s easy to check the daily burning restrictions every day by calling 1-888-WIS-BURN (947-2876) or by checking online at dnr.wi.gov (search ‘fire danger’).
Larger piles and daytime burning require a special permit from a DNR fire ranger. Piling your debris in a campfire pit does not make it okay to burn during the day. If your property is outside a DNR protection area, check with local officials for burning restrictions.
Warden Nerva and Ranger Leitz wish everyone a fun and safe spring.
If you have information regarding natural resource violations, please call: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained staff relay reported information to conservation wardens. Anyone who calls the Violation Hotline or provides information can remain anonymous.
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