Bill Matthias was born in Columbus, Wisconsin, and grew up in Madison. He began his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a preforestry major and rekindled his interest in the pine, oak, and lake regions of northwest Wisconsin when he became the superintendent of Northwood School District in Minong in 1975. While superintendent, Matthias launched the teenage firefighting crews at Northwood High School and battled the Five Mile Tower Fire of 1977 for 50 hours. He and his wife, Karen, spend their winters in Florida and each spring return to the Wisconsin Northwoods, where Matthias is a charter member of the Wascott Volunteer Fire Department.
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Wisconsin Historical Society Press: In what ways is the story of the Five Mile Tower Fire relevant today?
Bill Matthias: The book tells the story of the largest Wisconsin forest fire in the last 50 years of Wisconsin history started from a single source a match. But what happened after the fire burned out seventeen hours later can still be seen today in many ways:
- Advancement in radio communications between volunteer fire fighters and the DNR
- Better equipment: the John Deere 450 dozer with plow and an environmental cab is vastly superior to the old smaller tractor plows of the 1970's
- Everyone in the fire zone must wear fire retardant clothing, helmets, good boots, and carry along a small pack containing a fire shelter
- Better training of both DNR personnel and volunteer fire departments including jobs within the incident command center
- The use of actual buildings, including fire halls, town halls and community centers, for the incident command post to manage large fires
- The use of airplanes leased SEAT (single engine air tankers) and large two engine CL 215 and CL415 water bombers borrowed from Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario, or Manitoba through the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact
WHS Press: What do you hope people will take away from reading "Monster Fire at Minong?"
BM: My hope is that the story of the fire is a "page turner" for the reader and is enjoyed as the fire unfolds relating the events and individual stories of the many citizens who bravely fought the blaze. I believe the reader will learn about how Wisconsin fights fires today as a comparison to how it was done 33 years ago.
WHS Press: What general knowledge should the average person living in a wooded rural area have about wildfires and fire prevention?
BM: The most important thing is to follow the guidelines of "Firewise" a program sponsored by the Wisconsin DNR and across the country. Some tips include trimming the bushes and removing the trees directly around your home or cabin so that in the event of a forest fire, your place can be saved by the fire fighters. Also: make your driveway accessible to large fire vehicles, or fire fighters cannot get there to save your structure.
WHS Press: In the chapter "Teenage Firefighters," you discuss juniors and seniors in high school fighting the flames. Do you think this is a good practice for small rural communities today?
BM: Yes, I believe that today, high schools can still sponsor forest fire fighting crews. School administrators interested in forest protection and the teaching of citizenship in action can develop school board policies, use the local DNR rangers for training, and give interested students the opportunity to fight fires in their region of the state. New laws require that students be 18 years old and have work permits and wear protective clothing, as well as receive training classes in fire fighting. But with serious commitment, schools can provide a valuable crew for emergency fire fighting to assist the DNR with hand crews and be a very valuable asset in the event of a forest fire near the school. Such real life experiences by students can give them valuable knowledge about careers in fire fighting.
WHS Press: How do you think this major event changed Minong and surrounding towns, physically and as a community?
BM: Any time a catastrophic incident like a major fire or weather event destroys all or part of a community, folks sit up and become acutely aware of how it can be prevented in the future. People living in the pine regions of Wisconsin become very careful of any kind of burning activity especially in the spring of the year before "green up," when the woods and trees are still dry and brown after the winter snow melt. Several new volunteer fire departments have been formed since the early 1980's after the massive fires in 1976 and 1977 as well as in 1980. Everyone becomes more interested in fire protection and willing to spend the tax dollars necessary to provide support to the local volunteer fire departments. My own fire department of which I am a fire fighter, Wascott, was formed following the Five Mile Tower Fire. In addition, the nearby Township of Chicog started a fire department in the early 1980's.