Derecho Windstorm in Langlade and Oconto Counties in Northeastern Wisconsin
On the evening of Friday, July 19, 2019, a derecho storm hit northeastern Wisconsin. In total, over 500,000 people lost power across Wisconsin and Michigan and tens of thousands of trees were downed by hurricane-force winds associated with the storm. The most severe impacts began at Pelican Lake near Elcho and extended through rural areas across Langlade County and into Oconto County. The Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department (WRVFD) serves part of this area and is responsible for fire and rescue for 150 square miles. The area is sparsely populated with permanent residents, but there are many summer homes, cottages, and campgrounds in the region which increase the summer population significantly.
The first call that came into the volunteer fire department was for downed power lines in multiple locations. Shortly after, the department was dispatched for a potential lake rescue for persons who had been observed on the lake before the storm. Firefighters responded, only to discover that the roads to the lake were impassible. Crews reorganized to divide into multiple teams. Some continued efforts to reopen the highway and control traffic, while others began to create a lane toward the lake incident by cutting through downed timber with chain saws; however, progress was slow. Meanwhile, WRVFD firefighters could hear from radio communication that their usual mutual aid partners were also engaged in clean-up efforts in their own service areas. It soon became obvious that the damage was widespread and that the rescue and recovery operation would be extensive.
In addition to concerns about residents' health and well-being, volunteer firefighters engaging in clean-up efforts needed support as they worked through the night. Another team was reassigned to meet the food and hydration needs of those still working to clear the roads.
At 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, the morning after the derecho, the sheriff's department organized a meeting of local agencies to better assess the situation and develop a plan of action for the immediate response. Typically, a location would ask for help from identified mutual aid partners. Because many mutual aid partners were already engaged in clean-up efforts in their response areas, it was necessary to reach out to outside agencies. Consequently, unified command issued a call for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Strike Team to respond from outside of the area. The sheriff's department also set up a mobile command center more centrally located to the most impacted areas. The department requested help from the Red Cross, and a unit located about 70 miles away responded about 16 hours into the effort and again a few hours later with a hot meal brought from an area that had power. After a night of working with chainsaws, volunteer firefighters were finally able to crawl through the debris and determine that the boaters were safe and had sheltered in their automobile. The firefighters also knew that welfare checks would be necessary for people camping in the area. There were additional concerns about people, especially vulnerable older adults, who might be trapped in their homes by fallen trees or unable to get past debris to the roads.
The initial response lasted throughout the day on Saturday, and volunteers continued resident welfare checks on Sunday morning.
On Monday morning, many of the volunteer firefighters needed to return to their jobs. By Tuesday, it was clear that recovery efforts required additional manpower. WRVFD reached out to the community for additional volunteers. Retirees, non-resident homeowners, and others with ties to the area answered the call.
On Tuesday, the National Guard was deployed to the areas impacted by the extended power outage. People who rely on private wells, like many individuals in rural areas do, were unable to pump water without electricity. Later, the National Guard was deployed again to aid in debris removal.
The sheriff's department also called in a Type 4 Disaster Response team from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to assist. Among other forms of help, this team placed plywood message boards in the area, so that residents could be informed about recovery efforts.
The area was declared both a state and federal disaster. All electrical power was restored after 1 week. There were no deaths attributed to the disaster.
After a 2007 tornado occurred in the area, the WRVFD realized they needed more trained volunteers to respond to a large disaster event and recruited members of the community to volunteer their time. With the added volunteer staff, they were able to develop additional accountability standards for both equipment-tracking and person management concerns, such as food and hydration needs. This planning was helpful in the management of the disaster.
Emergency management plans were out of date at both the town and county level.
Ultimately the area obtained state and federal disaster declarations, so the area received financial reimbursement for equipment and other resources, including volunteer man-hours, used in the initial response and recovery efforts.
The town hall was opened for a week to assist residents with recovery activities, such as reporting concerns, obtaining drinking water, and charging communication and medical devices. Volunteers kept records, which were provided to the town clerk. This paperwork was needed for state and federal assistance.
Updated Emergency Action Plans
After experiencing a tornado in 2007, WRVFD recognized the need to increase the size of their volunteer roster, and that could include volunteers who would not or could not complete state firefighter certification. Non-firefighter volunteers have trained and responded with the department since 2008 and were directly engaged with initial response and recovery efforts after the 2019 derecho. Additional non-firefighter volunteers who had not received that special training were used primarily in clerical roles.
Communication with Residents
The Type 4 Incident Response team from WDNR placed plywood message boards around the community to update residents on information such as fire bans and brush collection sites. The WRVFD Facebook page also became a source of information for residents.
Volunteers were critical to the success of the rescue and recovery efforts. In addition to the volunteer firefighters, other volunteers from various communities played key roles in supporting the firefighters, documenting recovery efforts, and helping residents.
Determining the Scope of Damage
It was difficult to ascertain the scope of the damage initially. Cell service was spotty, and power was out for dispatch, so auxiliary power was necessary for communication. To get an assessment of the scope of the damage, the sheriff's department had to call representatives from emergency services and local governments in the impacted areas to an in-person meeting.
In an effort to assist with the presumed lake rescue, the volunteer fire department focused most of its efforts on clearing the roads into the lake area. With limited personnel, everyone was engaged in response activities. From an incident command standpoint, it is not ideal for fire department officers to be engaged in hands-on activities but that is often the reality for small rural departments. Nevertheless, this and other factors, including cell tower damage and widespread power outages, delayed situation reports from the fire department to the county-level emergency management personnel trying to assess the extent to which this was a widespread event.
Mutual Aid Partners
WRVFD relies on surrounding departments for mutual aid personnel and equipment. Agencies that would typically provide this support were engaged in clean-up efforts of their own and were not available to assist, so it was necessary to call in resources from a wider area using MABAS.
Rescue Personnel Communication and Technology
Dispatchers were handling calls using auxiliary power. Firefighters were trying to stay off the local government's radio channels for communication. Due to widespread communication issues, the sheriff's department could not get a clear picture of the extent of the damage. So many forms of communication were disrupted by electrical outages, it became important that various methods of communication be used throughout the event.
Clarity in Jurisdiction
The lake rescue was a search event and was within the jurisdiction of the volunteer fire department. When the county-level mobile command unit set up within their jurisdiction, about 14 hours into the initial disaster response, the WRVFD assumed that they were subordinated to the sheriff's department. Later, WRVFD learned that they were the primary jurisdictional agency for this response. Lack of clarity about responsibility caused confusion related to the issue of accountability. Theoretically, the Incident Command System model is clear about organizational structure in events of this scale. However, in a rural area like this, there are not always enough volunteers to fill the command tree and perform tasks.
WRVFD uses an accountability tracking system to meet their needs in search and rescue as well as fireground incidents. Their usual mutual aid partners have also trained with that system, but the out-of-area departments deployed with the MABAS Strike Team mostly used a tag system to account for personnel. WRVFD does not use tag boards, citing system weaknesses when used in large-scale events of long duration where maintaining records of personnel and equipment are necessary for disaster reimbursement. If tag boards must be used, they recommend taking cell phone pictures of the board at frequent intervals.
Volunteers who are not certified firefighters are critical to this small, rural department. They are members of the department and are covered by the same insurance as certified firefighters when responding to calls. They train with firefighters regularly, and because of that training, their presence allows firefighters to engage in other tasks that require certification or firefighter-type physical abilities. The support team system requires training and strengthens a fire department's officers and firefighters. In this community, the support team is a valued tool in all kinds of responses, including disaster response.
County and municipality-level emergency response plans should be updated regularly, or at the least every 2 years. Elected officials at both levels should be familiar with the emergency response plans and its periodic review process, so that they know who to call, when to act, and how to fulfill responsibilities to their communities when a disaster or public health emergency happens. This process includes disaster declarations that must be made so that outside resources can be requested. Local officials should be able to send and receive text messages, as well as other forms of communication when cellular reception is impacted, and understand their responsibility to keep county-level emergency management informed of changes in their contact information.
Donna Kallner, Support Team Member
Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.