Strong winds down trees, power lines in southern Wisconsin

Strong winds down trees, power lines in southern Wisconsin

The heavy storms that spawned a tornado near Wausau brought only strong winds to the Madison area, but it was enough to bring down trees and leave thousands without power.

The winds toppled a 70-foot tree in Jim West’s yard late Thursday afternoon, just as the Sun Prairie man was getting ready to mow the lawn.

“I was getting my tools together and heard a big crash,” he said. “I went and looked out the window and this (tree) had just fallen down.”

The tree didn’t fall on his home, but plenty of others fell on power lines and led to outages. Thousands of people, mostly in Sauk, Dane and Columbia counties, were without power for parts of Thursday, according to utilities.

The gusty winds, combined with the unusually dry May weather, created a fire threat in the city of Madison and state parks. Officials urged people not to have outdoor fires.

“When you’ve got the conditions as dry as they’ve been recently, it’s very easy to ignite a grass fire and with winds like this, you’re going to see it spread rapidly,” Madison Fire Department spokeswoman Lori Wirth said.

The department canceled a planned controlled demonstration burn scheduled for Thursday afternoon because of the high winds, Wirth said. Only a handful of incidents happened in the city because of the weather, she said.

State Department of Natural Resources administrators also warned people not to start campfires Thursday until weekend rain cut down the fire threat.

“We are typically out of fire season at this point, but with these kinds of winds, it’s just not safe to be burning of any kind right now,” wildfire prevention specialist Catherine Koele said.

The DNR hadn’t gotten any reports of fires in state parks as of 3 p.m. Thursday, she said.

At Blue Mound State Park in western Dane County, several campers were setting up for the long holiday weekend. Tina and Gary Groth were out with their grandkids, and said they would heed the fire warnings.

“You know, when you’re camping it’s all about the campfire, right? Marshmallows, S’mores, all that kind of stuff,” Tina Groth said. “But I would like to think that all the campers out here are seasoned campers and know better (than to start campfires).”

Weather officials confirmed a tornado touched down about two miles south of Marathon City in Marathon County, and was on the ground intermittently for about five minutes.

There were no reports of injuries or major structural damage.

Jeff Last, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that at about 7 p.m. Thursday, a Wisconsin State Patrol officer saw the tornado touch down. It was on the ground off and on for several miles as it moved northeast.

Last said the tornado lifted off the ground about two miles northwest of Rib Mountain State Park. He said the storm was fast-moving.

Local authorities are surveying the area. So far, they have seen several downed trees.