Kevin Spahr, the father of a 10-year-old killed by a fallen tree at Devil’s Lake State Park over the weekend, said he had little time to process the situation and protect his little girl.
“I only had, I don't know, 30 seconds to really process that before I started hearing the sound of snapping twigs and branches and things like that,” Spahr said. “And then finally a big crash, sharp pain across my lower legs, and my tent was just flattened across my face.”
Department of Natural Resources records show 32 deaths at all state parks since 2008, with six happening at Devil’s Lake. The vast majority of those deaths were accidents (like a fatal fall from rocks or drowning), medical issues (like heart attacks or natural causes) or suicides in the wilderness.
Those records indicate 146 accidents happening in Wisconsin’s 47 state parks in the past six years, none of them seeming to be from a falling tree.
Director of State Parks Dan Schuller said DNR staff is required by law to inspect parks and state land for any potential hazard twice a year. That includes checking for obvious signs of aging or decay for trees around campgrounds, trails, picnic areas, or other parts of the parks frequented by guests.
Schuller added if visitors report any issues in the less popular areas of a park, staff will look at the potential problem and deal with it if necessary.
“We try to do as good a job as anyone to keep our parks safe,” Schuller said. “And because we are doing these routine inspections, because we are in the park areas that people use all of the time, we're pretty on top of that. So it's a very unfortunate situation. Storms do happen though, and we try to get to and take care of those situations as soon as we can.”
Schuller said the trees at Devil’s Lake were inspected earlier this spring.
Park maintenance staff, superintendents or managers usually inspect trees and branches before the busy season and again before winter hits, according to Schuller. Sometimes DNR staff will call in professional foresters to help with the evaluation.
“If we suspect a problem, we do typically remove that tree,” Schuller said.
Schuller also mentioned the DNR’s emergency action plan, which is put into place when rangers need to warn people at a state park of a severe weather incident. He said there is protocol for going through campgrounds and letting people know of anything serious on its way to the park.
“We don't necessarily order evacuations unless that is ordered by emergency government, like for a flood event,” Schuller said. “But it's up to the visitor to decide for themselves if it's safer to stay in the park, find shelter there or to leave.”