Monster Fire at Minong: Wisconsin's Five Mile Tower Fire of 1977

By Bill Matthias

Paperback: $14.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-447-0

192 pages, 40 b/w photos, 3 maps, 6 x 9"; E-book also available


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Ignited by a single match on April 30, 1977, the Five Mile Tower Fire raged out of control for 17 hours. It would be one of the largest wildland fires in Wisconsin history, ultimately destroying more than 13,000 acres of land and 63 buildings. As a column of black pine smoke reached high in the sky, citizens from Minong, Chicog, Webster, Gordon, Wascott, Hayward, Spooner, Solon Springs, and other communities began showing up to help. The grassy field designated as fire headquarters quickly became a hub of activity, jammed with trucks, school buses, dozers on trailers, dump trucks, tanker trucks, fuel trucks, and hundreds of people waiting to sign in. More than 900 came in the first four hours, clogging the road with traffic in both directions. Headquarters personnel worked valiantly to coordinate citizens and DNR workers in a buildup of people and equipment unprecedented in the history of Wisconsin firefighting.

Based on his own experiences during the long battle, plus dozens of interviews and other eyewitness accounts, Bill Matthias presents an in-depth look at the Five Mile Tower Fire, the brave citizens who helped fight it, and the important changes made to firefighting laws and procedures in its aftermath.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department:

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.

Interview with Bill Matthias

Wisconsin Historical Society Press:

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?"

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?

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?

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?

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.

In what ways is the story of the Five Mile Tower Fire relevant today?

Author Interviews
Click here to listen to author Bill Matthias talk with Larry Meiller about the "Monster Fire at Minong" in observance of the fire's thirty-third anniversary. This interview originally aired on Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 11:00am on the Wisconsin Public Radio Idea's Network

Click here to listen to author Bill Matthias talk with Mitch Teich about the "Monster Fire at Minong" in observance of the fire's thirty-third anniversary. This interview originally aired on Friday, April 30, 2010 on the Milwaukee Public Radio program "Lake Effect."

"Bill Matthias shows how a courageous band of volunteers stood up to one of the most powerful forces of nature to save people’s homes and lives. 'Monster Fire' tells the incredible story of a modern conflagration that opened an era of fires in the Great North Woods. Anyone with a cabin on a lake will want to hear its cautionary tale." —Rocky Barker, author of "Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America"

"The fire seemed to have a life of its own, and I recall wondering how a bunch of puny humans could possibly deal with such a monster. Bill Matthias has captured that feeling of awe and dread in his wonderful account of a historic time in northwestern Wisconsin history. ... If you were there, it is like reliving the moment, and if you were not there, this is a story that will capture you and not let you go until you've finished the final sentence." —Bill Thornley, editor, "Spooner Advocate," and teenage firefighter on the Five Mile Tower Fire

"Matthias evokes the searing heat and the ravenous fury of flames as hundreds of men and machines were mobilized in a feverish fight to save homes and lives. Within the drama of human sacrifice needed to tame the fiery beast, he has chronicled the techniques of modern-day forest firefighting, many of which evolved from lessons learned in that monster fire. All that is missing is the smell of smoke." —Earl Thayer, retired, Board of Directors, Wisconsin Lakes Association

"'In Monster Fire at Minong,' Bill Matthias has captured not only the destructive fury of the fire itself, but the anxious urgency and high stakes that face the folks responsible for taming the beast. It is the intriguing human side of fire suppression that people may be less familiar with, and Bill sheds light on the acute stress associated with that effort. It makes for a fascinating read." —Blair Anderson, Chief, Forest Fire Management, Wisconsin Division of Forestry

“A well-balanced account of a past event and its impact upon the present.” —James R. Miller, retired, Wisconsin DNR Fire Control