DNR stations two firefighting planes in Rhinelander amid high fire danger risksSubmitted: 05/23/2018
Lane Kimble
Lane Kimble
News Director

DNR stations two firefighting planes in Rhinelander amid high fire danger risks
RHINELANDER - As he suited up with a bit of swagger and his aviator sunglasses, all eyes were on Greg Fiss and his airplane Wednesday morning.  However, Fiss was quick to deflect the fame on the people watching him.

"They're the rock stars, we're just more visible," Fiss said of ground-based firefighters through his thick southern accent.

Fiss filled up his single-engine air tanker, or SEAT, with 800 gallons of water to show a group of DNR firefighters at Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport how he can help.  The native Kansan has flown a SEAT for 14 years, transitioning from agriculture crop dusting.

The DNR-contracted planes carry fire-slowing chemicals to drop on hot spots, flying at speeds of 185 miles per hour when fully loaded.  Fiss estimates he flies upwards of 200 firefighting missions each year.

"It's got big wings, but you've got a spot, a couple spots you can look down and see the fire pretty well," Fiss said. "And then it's pretty much just feel."

The planes' arrival mark the first time the DNR ever stationed its SEAT planes in Rhinelander. They're normally in Necedah and Siren. Bringing them to Oneida County was for good reason this week.

"This is one of the driest places in the state at this time," DNR Forest Fire Suppression Specialist Jim Barnier said.

Fire danger sits at high in Oneida and the surrounding counties, with an estimated line of "wet vs. dry" drawn from Lincoln County north.  Barnier strategically places the planes where they could be used the most, then teaches his teams how to best use them.

"Prepare them for the worst and hopefully the outcome is keeping the fires small," Barnier said.

Wednesday morning, Barnier went over tactics like "shoulder and head" and "hook and pinch" with his ground forces, stressing the planes should be used early and safely. The planes cannot drop flame retardant on people. One liquid drop covers an area 100-feet wide by 400-feet long.

"It definitely is like preparing for a battle," DNR Forestry Team Leader John Gillen said.

It's up to crew members like Gillen (who is the team leader for Oneida and Vilas counties) to decide when to call in the air support.  Gillen says he's gone on a number of forest fire calls in the Northwoods this spring, but has never called in air support.  That could change in 2018.

"[They're] a lifesaver in terms of jumping on and suppressing or containing a fire. Just helping us out," Gillen said.

The planes don't put a fire out, but can slow the spread before firefighters on the ground can even get to an active scene.  Firefighters see the SEATs as a valuable tool they hope not to need, but with a busy holiday weekend ahead, Greg Fiss knows he'll likely be spotted flying over the Northwoods soon.

"Oh yeah, it'll be a busy season. It always is," Fiss said.

The SEAT planes will be in Rhinelander until substantial rain knocks the fire danger down.  The DNR reminds you burning permits for debris fires are suspended until further notice.  It is legal to light campfires for warming or cooking, but keep water and shovels nearby.

The DNR bills whoever is found to be responsible for starting a wild fire when a SEAT plane is used to help fight that fire.

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What We're Working OnSubmitted: 08/17/2018

- Tonight on Newswatch 12:

We talk to area school district administrators about the problem they're facing with teacher shortages and how the schools are trying to work around those shortages.

We'll bring you the scene at Dunkin' Donuts in Rhinelander today where several police cars arrived and an officer even stood on the roof, not for an emergency, but for a good cause.

And we kick-off another season of Friday Night Blitz where we will bring you scores from high school games all across North Central Wisconsin as well as highlights from the following football games:

Prescott vs. Rhinelander

Wittenberg-Birnamwood vs. Northland Pines

Shiocton vs. Tomahawk

Deerfield vs. Three Lakes/Phelps

Belleville vs. White Lake/Elcho

That will be tonight on Friday Night Blitz at the end of Newswatch 12 at 10.

We'll bring you this and more tonight on Newswatch 12 - news from where you live.

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The North Shore Fire Department responded to the scene Friday morning to help motorists, some of whom were sitting atop their flooded cars. Four people had to be rescued, and two others got out on their own.

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People in the area always look forward a tradition in its 56th year.

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The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the July 10 blast in Sun Prairie destroyed six businesses, one home and killed a volunteer firefighter. Many of the buildings damaged include apartments.

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RHINELANDER - Hardly anyone goes through life without knowing someone who is affected by cancer in some way.

Thursday evening people gathered to honor those impacted by cancer at the11th annual Celebration of Life in Rhinelander.

Organizers emphasized that cancer survivors can still live active and productive lives.

Becky Gauthier of Rhinelander gave the keynote speech.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2017.

She shared her story that's been driven by courage.

"If it's ever you, just have hope," Gauthier said. "Don't ever give up. Just know that miracles happen every day and even if they tell you bad news, it doesn't mean it's your future."

At the end of the ceremony organizers released butterflies as a symbol of hope. 

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RHINELANDER - The race for sheriff in Oneida County might not be over just yet.

Incumbent Grady Hartman won a three-way Republican primary on Tuesday.

There is no Democrat on the November ballot, and longshot Constitution Party candidate Tom Wakely is the only other candidate who will appear.  Wakely got just eight votes in Tuesday's primary.

But on Thursday, Republican challenger Larry Mathein confirmed he's considering a write-in bid.

Mathein is the current medical examiner in Oneida and Forest counties.

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