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Cleanup Continues a Year After Windstorm

July 22, 2020

Brandon Kieper

Antigo Daily Journal

Many anniversaries are meant to be celebrated. When it comes to the windstorm of one year ago, the infamous double derecho, lets begin with a word of thanks.

Considering the severity of forest and property devastation, it is true cause for celebration that throughout the county, serious injuries were minimal and no deaths were reported. That said, the damage was historic, and the cleanup work continues today.

A review of Journal front page stories following the storm reveals some key moments along the timeline.

By Monday July 22, 180,000 people had their power restored throughout the storm’s wide path, but about 60,000 remained in the dark. Residents of Elcho, Summit Lake and Bass Lake areas saw their power come back on between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. Some county residents would end up waiting even longer.

On Tuesday, Governor Tony Evers toured storm damaged areas, including around Pickerel. As the week wore on, cleanup crews began to arrive: DNR, National Guard, Team Rubicon, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the state department of corrections from McNaughton.

Some key developments stretched well in August. On Aug. 3, Gov. Evers requested that FEMA survey 17 counties and two reservations for possible damage expenses. One week later, on Aug. 10, FEMA crews began those assessments. It would take another two and 1/2 weeks until Langlade County became one of those to receive federal disaster area designation.

Sheriff Mark Westen praised all of the volunteer groups, and said the DNR was particularly crucial is getting cleanup operations rolling.

“The Wisconsin DNR provided major assistance to the county in the form of a short term Incident Management Team,” he recalled. “This team assisted in identifying, coordinating and facilitating action plans to assist in major cleanup operations as well as fulfilling requests from townships for assistance.

” Nearly eleven months after the disaster declaration, Emergency Management Director Cassie Doemel said the FEMA process remains ongoing, but has been complicated due to the virus pandemic.

“Hopefully the reimbursements will be completed by the end of the summer, but across the state some FEMA projects are still open far longer than a year later. The forestry, highway and maintenance departments have been tackling mountains of debris, and paperwork, on top of their normal workload for over a year now and we’ll all be happy to see the funds get reimbursed for our efforts.”

With public safety concerns largely dealt with, the minds of many turned to the forested areas, and the effort to assess the damage dealt to one of the county’s most treasured resources: timber. The situation effected many private landowners, but a serious blow was felt by the county itself, with 180,000 acres of timber earmarked to provide income for years to come. Suddenly, many of those trees were either snapped off or bent nearly in half.

Langlade County Forest Administrator Erik Rantala knew his crew had to get right to work, and would need some assistance.

“The first couple of days were reconnaissance and planning regarding the areas we needed to gain access to do an initial damage assessment,” Rantala said. “Virtually all of the forest roads in these blocks were completely blocked from wind damaged trees. We had the assistance of numerous loggers and DNR saw crews with opening forest roads so our foresters could get in and assess the damage. With the assistance of DNR we were also able to do an initial assessment from the air which helped give the perspective of the size and scope of the damage across the county.”

Once the damage assessments were complete, work quickly shifted to harvesting, with a goal of salvaging as much of the timber as possible as well as minimizing possible forest disease issues. County and DNR foresters established more than 100 salvage timber sales, encompassing more than 12,000 acres. These projects lasted through this spring, and often involved crews working in very challenging and hazardous storm-damaged areas.

The work continues today, but has been slowed due to deteriorating timber markets.

“It’s difficult to project how much of the down timber will be lost at this point. We are hopeful that most of the sales that we have established and sold will be completed, but the recent downturn in timber markets is a large unknown. I anticipate that work going through next summer.”

Along with the harvesting work, Rantala also mentioned his department’s role in trail clearing. That role received major assists from many county volunteer groups.

“The rec trails that are managed through the forestry deptartment are largely open at this point. Small segments of the snowmobile and Jack Lake cross country ski trails are currently being logged and anticipate those being ready for the upcoming season. I can’t stress enough how much work the club volunteers, for example snowmobile, ATV, cross country ski, bike, Ice Age Trail, horse and sled dog, put into getting the trails open safely. Without these volunteers we would have had a lot more closures and re-routes over the last year.

“One member of our staff is still dealing with this all day each day of the week. We will be dealing with the effects of the storm on a daily basis for years to come in some capacity.”

On the industry side, Kretz Lumber Company Forester Dennis Fincher estimates that their organization has hauled in at least eight million board feet of lumber and around 50,000 cords of pulp wood from storm damaged stands over the past year, with around three-fourths of it from Langlade County. That continues this week, with Kretz currently bringing in wood from the Lily and Pickerel areas.

The overabundance of lumber supply has put a strain on the timber markets.

“It has flooded the markets, especially on the pulp wood side of things, it was the perfect storm between the amount of wood that went down with the storm, then winter came and that was a struggle, a lot of the guys that were harvesting the wood pulled out because it was just too hard once the snow was on the trees.”

Fincher said the already tough situation has been compounded by the pandemic.

“COVID really hurt us, the economy now, the paper market is really soft. A lot of what we were cutting was going to the paper mills, the Rapids mill was 30 percent of the hardwoods in the state, then a domino effect to the other mills. Just about every pulp mill in the state is pretty well full.”

Fincher said that Kretz Lumber is about 75 percent of the way through the projects they have already committed to, and despite some downed wood beginning to rot there is optimism that storm damage can still be harvested for many months.

“A major catastrophe is not anything new in the forest, whether it be a forest fire, or disease, or a tornado, it happens. But it doesn’t happen on this scale very often at all. I think in Langlade we’re going to notice the lack of stumpage available in areas for awhile to come.”

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