MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Bob Gotelaere thought he could outrace the wildfire bearing down on his northwestern Wisconsin home.
The retired police officer had fled the house hours earlier after authorities warned him to evacuate, but he wanted to save antique guns from his grandfather and his daughter's needlepoint work. So he and his buddy threaded their way along the back roads to reach the house on Ellison Lake.
Then the wind shifted. The fire — one of the worst to strike northern Wisconsin in three decades — came roaring toward them in a soup of orange smoke.
"There were flames all around the house. The embers were coming down in the yard. You couldn't see because of the smoke. (His friend) was screaming at me, 'we've got to go, we've got to go,'" the 67-year-old Gotelaere said. "It was unreal."
They barely made it out, Gotelaere said Thursday, shortly after firefighters contained the blaze that destroyed 17 homes and 30 other structures as it swept across 9,000 acres. Aerial photographs of the fire depicted a roiling mountain of smoke, and the Department of Natural Resources issued a warning for residents to watch for breathing problems.
The blaze began Tuesday afternoon near Simms Lake in Douglas County, 40 miles southeast of Duluth, Minn.
No injuries have been reported, but at least 60 people were forced to evacuate. About 20 people spent Tuesday night in a Red Cross shelter at Drummond High School.
Authorities believe a spark from logging operations may have started the fire, but DNR spokesman Robert Manwell said Thursday investigators were still looking into the origin.
Firefighters from nearly 40 departments fought the blaze. The National Guard sent two Black Hawk helicopters Wednesday to help, and two Canadian waterbombers, which are fixed-wing aircraft, also helped ground crews, according to the DNR.
Firefighters had finally stopped the fire's spread by early Thursday and shifted into mop-up mode, exploring the charred landscapes for hot spots.
"In some areas it's just black. There's nothing. It's just black. The trees that are standing are just sticks," Gotelaere's wife, Mary, said in a telephone interview from her home Thursday.
Authorities have opened some roads, and the Red Cross closed its shelter after it stood empty Wednesday night as evacuees began to return to their homes. Red Cross volunteers remained to help them with anything they needed, though, said Kyle Kriegl, regional executive officer with the Red Cross' western Wisconsin chapter.
The DNR suspended all burning permits statewide Wednesday and issued red flag warnings, which indicate a high risk of fire, for Florence and Marinette counties. Winds were expected to be calmer Thursday but DNR officials were still worried about dry conditions.
Gov. Scott Walker has declared a state of emergency in Douglas and Bayfield counties, which makes the Wisconsin National Guard available for recovery efforts. The governor was scheduled to tour the area around midday Thursday.
The last major forest fire in northern Wisconsin happened on April 22, 1980, and consumed nearly 11,500 acres of forest. A central Wisconsin fire in May 2005 burned more than 3,400 acres.
Bob Gotelaere made his way back to his property Wednesday morning. He discovered the fire had taken his brother-in-law's seasonal mobile home across the street as well as his own outhouse. "It was a nice one, too," Gotelaere said. "Veneer, panel walls, everything."
Somehow, though, the fire spared his house. The phone was even still working.
"I expected to find nothing," he said. "I just looked and couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it."
And he learned a lesson: Get out and stay out.
"You'd think I'd know better," he said. "It was really dumb. The good lord was watching me, I'll you that."