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Wildfire risk 'very high' in southern Wis.
Monroe firefighters respond to a grass fire on Haddinger Road next to the Clarno United Methodist Church April 26. The fire started as a controlled burn but spread into a nearby cornfield due to wind. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
DARLINGTON - Area residents inspired by the arrival of spring temperatures to clear yard waste may want to hold off on burning it - or avoid burning it altogether.

All of southern Wisconsin is under a warning for "very high" fire danger, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Low humidity and high winds "coupled with many landowners conducting spring clean-up around their property by burning yard waste" lead to the majority of wildfires, according to the DNR website.

A wildfire that consumed a barn Sunday night near Darlington is just the latest of many such fires in recent weeks caused by the dangerous combination of high winds, dry air and residents burning yard waste or garbage.

The barn at 13654 Roller Coaster Road in the Town of Darlington was a total loss, but there were no injuries or loss of animals associated with the fire, according to Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill.

"Somebody there was burning trash, and the barn caught on fire," Gill said.

A similar wildfire happened two nights earlier at a property on Fork Road near Wiota. In that case, wind spread the fire to a wood pile and nearby field, according to the Lafayette County Sheriff's Office.

It took five area fire departments to get the wildfire under control.

On April 22, a rural Brodhead resident was burning grass on his property on Ten Eyck Road when a breeze ignited flames in a nearby shed containing a tractor and manure spreader. The shed was a total loss, said Juda Fire Chief Steve Isely.

The Green County Sheriff's Office has record of 56 fire calls in the county since the last snowfall on April 18. These calls are not categorized by their nature, according to Sheriff Mark Rohloff.

But if reported and categorized fire calls in Lafayette County are any indication, the majority of fires in the area since April 18 are wildfires involving grass, round bales of hay, farm fields and, in some cases, even structures.

The DNR does not issue burn bans for Green County or Lafayette County, as it does in other parts of the state. Instead, the agency leaves any ban up to local authorities.

In Green County, such orders are issued by the sheriff at the request of the Green County Fire Officers Association.

"I have been in touch with the association's president and reviewed the process with him. Currently no such order has been given," Rohloff wrote in an email to the Times. He advised that county residents "should use common sense when attempting to burn ditches, fields or fence lines. The lack of moisture and dry undergrowth is ideal for a rapidly spreading fire and should only be attempted in isolated areas."

Ron Schneider, the DNR cooperative fire ranger for southern Wisconsin, said Monday he anticipates the "very high" fire danger for the area will continue today and then begin to decrease with the rain expected tonight into Wednesday morning.

The risk for wildfires doesn't go down dramatically until grass turns green and trees are budding.

"We're just waiting for that transition," Schneider said. "It'll take another week or two for Mother Nature to catch up. You'll see a distinct change in the vegetation by this weekend."

In the meantime, he encouraged people in the area to hold off on burning waste, take it to a municipal dump or compost it themselves.

"Debris burning is our no. 1 cause of forest fires in the state," he said, "so we try to provide alternatives to the public."

Monroe residents aren't allowed to burn trash or yard waste within city limits at any time.

Leaves can be burned in Monroe but only with a permit from the fire chief, and few residents seek out these permits, said Chief of Police Fred Kelley.

Monroe residents have other options. They can compost in their yards or recycle with the city Streets and Sanitation Department.

Bagged or bundled yard waste is picked up curbside with a $2 florescent green sticker, available at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, 1224 10th Ave. W.

The city also offers free yard waste drop-offs on certain Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the spring, summer and fall at the Streets and Sanitation Department, 1064 5th Ave. The next two are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and 7 a.m. to noon May 12.