Then the wind shifted. The fire 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 by phone Thursday. He spent the night with his friend and made his way back to his property Wednesday, fully expecting to find his house reduced to ashes. He discovered the fire had taken his brother-in-law's seasonal mobile home across the street as well as his own outhouse.
Somehow, though, the fire spared the house.
"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 tell you that."
Firefighters had shifted into mop-up mode by Thursday morning, checking the blackened landscape for hot spots.
Gov. Scott Walker toured the area by air Thursday afternoon and later released a statement saying state agencies stand ready to help fire victims, including providing money for temporary housing and offering assistance filling out insurance claims. He also has declared a state of emergency in Douglas and Bayfield counties, which makes the Wisconsin National Guard available for recovery efforts.
"To the victims of this fire, I want you to know the state of Wisconsin stands with you," Walker said in the statement.
The DNR initially estimated the fire had consumed nearly 9,000 acres but revised the figures downward Thursday after completing more detailed mapping of the blaze.
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.
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