JEFFERSON — Jefferson County continued to build its reputation as an island of serenity for outdoor recreation enthusiasts in southeastern and south-central Wisconsin Tuesday with county board approval of an extension of the Interurban Trail farther east toward Oconomowoc.
A resolution, ratified unanimously by the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, authorizes an extension of the licensing agreement between Wisconsin Electric Power Co., doing business as We Energies, and Jefferson County, for the purpose of constructing Phase 2 of the Interurban Trail from Watertown to Oconomowoc.
The Jefferson County Parks Department has been constructing a recreation trail for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing on right-of-way owned by We Energies east of Watertown. The proposed trail is 10.96 miles in length between Watertown and Oconomowoc. A trailhead in Watertown is located near Concord Avenue.
Following Tuesday’s board session, Jefferson County Park Director Kevin Wiesman said he was pleased with the supervisor’s assessment of the value of adding to the trail.
“The extension of the county’s current license agreement or lease with We Energies to operate the Interurban Trail is a requirement for the agencies we partner with for grant and support funds,” he said. “They want to see a contract that meets or exceeds the life of the project, which they define as 20 years. That being said, I think it’s important to note that We Energies has these types of agreements and trails on quite a few of their corridors and have not rescinded any that we are aware of. We’re just extending our license to meet our grant obligations.”
The off-road, paved, trail connection is being built on the former Interurban Rail Line that connects Watertown to Oconomowoc. The path cross-section will consist of a 10-foot-wide asphalt surface with 2-foot-wide aggregate shoulders. An 8-inch stone base with 3-inch asphalt layer will be used. The project is located primarily in Jefferson County where there are 10 miles and a portion in Waukesha County of one mile.
On Feb. 10, 2015, the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution that authorized the initial 15-year licensing agreement with We Energies.
“This provided the necessary authority for the county to proceed forward with Phase 1 of the project from the City of Watertown to River Road,” county officials said in the resolution. “This phase of the project included the installation of a bridge, safety fencing and initial grading with asphalt milling overlays in preparation for a future asphalt surface. Jefferson County has completed Phase 1 and continues to work on Phase 2 of this project, which runs from River Road to County Highway F.”
Jefferson County has been successful in receiving grant funds to help cover the costs of this phase and these include a Federal TAP Grant and a DNR Stewardship grant.
The county has been in the engineering phase over the past 18 months, and it is anticipated that bids will be solicited for Phase 2 of this project during the first quarter of 2022.
“To ensure that the term of the license agreement continues throughout the expected life of the trail infrastructure, We Energies has agreed to extend the duration of the license by an additional 15 years, ending in 2045,” the county stated. “All other terms of the initial license agreement remain unchanged.”
The resolution approved Tuesday authorizes Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier to sign the license extension with We Energies, which will extend the license for an additional 15 years. It also authorizes Wehmeier to execute future license extensions for the Interurban Trail Project that are consistent with the base license agreement approved through a county board resolution that was approved in 2014.
The parks committee considered this resolution at its meeting on Aug. 9 and recommended forwarding the documents to the county board for its approval Tuesday night.
Entering into this license agreement with We Energies will have no fiscal impact on Jefferson County.
Planners and supporters of the trail envision that, someday, the Interurban Trail will give users the opportunity to ride safely from the northern end of the Glacial River Trail in Watertown, east to the Hank Aaron and Oak Leaf trails, as well as lakefront in Milwaukee.
FORT ATKINSON — When Fort Atkinson Chief Daryl Rausch arrived at the DB Oaks building at midday Tuesday, the first on the scene, flames were already licking through the roof.
Seven city employees who double as firefighters were next on the scene, greeted by a line of roaring orange flames and a black billow of smoke that stretched miles into the sky.
Nineteen hours later, Rausch was back at the site of the fire, giving updates against a backdrop of charred, twisted wreckage still punctuated by orange flames and frequent small explosions.
In the interim, all 44 members of Fort Atkinson’s volunteer fire department had pitched in to fight the blaze, assisted by volunteers from 48 other departments spread across five counties and two states.
“They did a great job,” Rausch said of all of the firefighters who worked on the scene. “This very easily could have spread to envelop the whole complex.”
The aim was never to save the whole building, but to minimize damage and keep the fire from spreading to other area buildings and homes, Rausch said. The portion of the building where the fire started is completely destroyed, he said, though another portion of the building remains completely functional.
He noted that firefighters used up to 5,000 gallons a minute to knock down the flames on the front end of the fire. Because the city’s water system can replenish only about 2,000 gallons a minute, the system was taxed in terms of moving the water around the city, leading to some low water pressure problems elsewhere in the city.
However, at no point did the firefighters run out of water, he said.
All in all, firefighters used around a million gallons of water, and all of this water combined with debris and chemicals caused runoff which headed to the Rock River. Mitigation efforts along the edge of the river sought to contain fire-related pollution to keep the river as clean as possible.
“At this point, we’re monitoring the fire and letting it burn out,” Rausch said just after 7 a.m. Wednesday. “There’s no danger to the surrounding properties, but we do expect it to continue burning for a few days.”
There was no one in the building at the time the fire started, but a few firefighters did require medical treatment due to heat exhaustion and at least one significant injury.
The temperature in Fort Atkinson Tuesday afternoon was around 94 degrees, and the roaring blaze and heavy protective gear just added to the stress on responders.
“We had a couple of heat-related injuries early on, one of which was treated on the scene and the other of which was transported to the hospital,” Rausch said.
“Later in the evening, one of our Fort firefighters received a significant, life-threatening cut while fighting the fire,” the chief said, declining to release the name of the injured firefighter. “He was transported to the Fort hospital to begin with and from there to the University Hospital in Madison, where he’s undergoing surgery.”
In the early hours of the fire, Fort Atkinson police went from door to door in the local neighborhood advising people to evacuate for their safety.
“There were some pretty big explosions early on,” Rausch said. “We had some LP tanks blow up.” Smaller explosions continued throughout the fire through Thursday morning, which Rausch said could be paint cans blowing up.
Fort Atkinson firefighters were on scene for close to 12 hours before yielding to a night crew of mutual aid departments.
“I sent my members home to rest, “Rausch said.
Around 7 a.m. Wednesday a new day crew of firefighters from distant departments arrived to provide relief, and another crew was set to keep an eye on the site starting at midday Wednesday.
Rausch said that the department has not determined exactly how the blaze started, and given the amount of destruction, he said they’re unlikely to ever know.
The former Thomas Industries building, owned by Randy Knox since 1985, provided space for a number of local business.
Knox told the Daily Union on Tuesday that one of the tenants in the building had just received a large shipment of Vietnamese rubber, which provided ample fuel as the blaze was getting started.
Rausch thanked Knox and Hoard’s Dairyman for providing firefighters with floor plans for the building to aid in the firefighting efforts.
Meanwhile, numerous local businesses and individuals stepped up to provide water and food for the hard-pressed firefighters.
“The community support we’ve seen has been outstanding,” Rausch said.
Gesturing to a load of bottled water piled on site equivalent to the size of a small car, Rausch said that the day before, that stack had been twice as high, and the department had still more donated water in reserve back at the station.
Food and water donations came in steadily on Tuesday as firefighters from Fort and other departments battled the blaze.
One local business, for example, donated 10 pizzas and then that business’ customers, hearing about the donation, kept adding to that order as one way of expressing their appreciation for the volunteer firefighters and the efforts they were putting in to keep the community safe.
“We had help coming in from all over,” Rausch said. “One department came from Boone County (Illinois,) and they said they could see the smoke from this fire on the horizon as they were pulling out of their own station.”
Rausch noted that the departments providing aid were primarily made up of volunteers just like Fort Atkinson’s.
Instances such as this really underline the need for a strong, trained local fire department, he said.
Even though the Fort Atkinson Department is pretty much at full roster right now, Rausch said that many other small town departments are having trouble attracting volunteers.
“I don’t know how much longer this model is sustainable,” the chief said. “Volunteer departments are really stretched.”
Meanwhile, the Fort Atkinson department has responded to more calls than ever this year, though no one underlying cause links the incidents, Rausch said.
With so many heavy storms moving through the area in recent days, it’s difficult to write a reliable advance story about the biggest outdoor event to take place in Watertown in 2021.
Mother Nature always has the last say on these things and She seems to be a bit miffed these days.
As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, however, Watertown Riverfest founder and Chairman Tom Schultz was busy and upbeat, as he and others put the finishing touches on the grounds, that include accommodations for a huge carnival midway, concert venue, and dozens of food and drink booths.
“We’re getting close,” Schultz said Wednesday as he went about his last-minute tasks at forested Riverside Park in the center of Watertown. “The storm last night offered up some setbacks, but they were minimal.”
Shultz said that, this morning, vendors will be bringing in their food, soda and beer. Today is opening day of Riverfest 2021, which runs through Sunday.
“We should be pretty well set,” Schultz said, adding that in terms of weather during set-up for the fest, volunteers have pretty much taken it as it has come. “We keep an eye on things, because we have a lot of tents and trees, but with last night’s storm, the park was spared. I hope it won’t be bad later today.”
The midway took a minor hit during Tuesday evening’s storm, with its high winds and lightning. Schultz said the carnival lost power for a short period and this meant that its workers roasted for a time when the air conditioners in their trailers stopped working.
Schultz said the midway rides were not damaged in the storm because, when they are in operation, many travel high into the sky, but when they are not moving, most sit low to the ground. They are also heavy and stable.
Schultz said that, although there was considerable rainfall in recent days, Riverside Park should be in good shape for the thousands of people who will be visiting the free festival that runs Thursday through Sunday.
“Everything drained pretty well and the festival site was so dry that much of the rain that fell has soaked in,” he said. “If there are problem spots where water builds up, we can always put down some wood chips, but we don’t like to do that if we don’t really have to, because they are a mess to clean up.”
The big “get” for Riverfest this year, in terms of music according to Schultz, is Saturday night’s country band, Shenandoah.
“We were very fortunate to get them,” he said. “They are a great band and many people will be surprised at how many of their hit songs they know. We know the band is excited to be here and they will be a big draw, I’m sure.”
Although larger music festivals in the United States, such as Milwaukee’s Summerfest, are mandating that attendees be vaccinated for COVID-19, or undergo testing, Riverfest organizers decided to let each person decide for themselves whether they will attend and how they might do it. He said there will be 16 hand-washing stations located throughout the grounds to help people stay clean. He also stressed that visitors make the right decisions for themselves.
“We advise people that, if they are concerned about the virus, they wear a mask, or don’t come down when the festival is busy,” he said. “Everyone has to make their own decisions.”
Schultz said it’s always a rush for planners right up until the opening moment of Riverfest. It is the 34th year of the event and, for Schultz and his colleagues, this never changes.
“We’ve been off a year due to COVID-19, but we have a great team of volunteers and we feel good about where we are,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback already.”
Thursday, Aug. 12
4:30-11 p.m. — A Taste of Watertown
5-11 p.m. — Rainbow Valley Rides midway
4:30-8:30 p.m. — Face painting and body art
4:30-9 p.m. — Caricature artist
4:30-9 p.m. — Chainsaw art
5-9-p.m. — Ride special with a $20 wristband
5:30 p.m. — Lovemonkeys 30th Anniversary Concert
8:40 p.m. — The Boy Band Night