State News: Tick Fatality, Wetlands, Solar

Firefighter Killed in Sun Prairie Gas Explosion

One firefighter has died and another was critically injured in a gas explosion and fire that leveled several buildings Tuesday night in downtown Sun Prairie.

Authorities said at least six firefighters were injured along with some civilians. At least five structures were damaged. Sun Prairie police Lt. Kevin Konopacki says there have been no reports of people missing following the gas leak and explosion.

The explosion in the 100 block of West Main Street happened around 7 pm after a contractor struck a natural gas main about 40 minutes earlier. Firefighters and police in the community of about 30,000 had responded and Konopacki said an evacuation of several city blocks was underway when the blast occurred. The fire resulting from the explosion ignited some cars parked in the area.

A plume of smoke could be seen for miles around Sun Prairie.


First State Fatality from Disease Spread by Tick

A Wisconsin woman has died from a disease rarely seen in Wisconsin and carried by a common pest: the American dog tick, also known as a wood tick.

The woman, who was in her late 50s, died last month from Rocky Mountain spotted fever after being bitten while camping, La Crosse County public health nurse Jo Foellmi said. It’s the state’s first ever death from Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“It is very rare to have this in Wisconsin. Minnesota has had one child fatality in the last five years. But normally you see this in the south or out west,” Foellmi said.

The disease has flu-like symptoms: body aches, fever, headache and can usually be treated with antibiotics. The Wisconsin woman who died from the disease had underlying chronic health conditions.

Disease spread by mosquitoes and ticks has been on the rise across the United States. And last year, Wisconsin saw a record 4,299 cases of Lyme disease, which is spread by the black-legged, or deer, tick.


Soybean Planting Surpasses Corn

Wisconsin farmers planted soybeans on a record number of acres this year.

The latest data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service found soybeans were planted on 2.3 million acres in the state, up 7 percent from last year’s record high.

Greg Bussler, state statistician for NASS, said Wisconsin isn’t the only state seeing more acres going to the crop. “What’s interesting to note is that in the U.S., this is the first time since 1983 that soybean acres have surpassed corn acres,” Bussler said.

U.S. farmers planted 89.6 million acres of soybeans, compared to the 89.1 million acres of corn that was planted. In Wisconsin, producers planted 3.9 million acres of corn, the same amount as last year.

Conley said more farmers are pursuing soybeans because production costs per acre are lower than corn.

But Conley and others in agriculture worry that strong price could be changing. Conley said soybean commodity prices have fallen around $1.50 per bushel in the last few weeks. China is set to implement a new 25-percent tariff on soybeans. The country is a major export market for the U.S. and for Wisconsin.

Conley warns things could be much more serious if the trade war with China continues.

“Not today, not tomorrow, but five to seven years from now, if these tariffs stay in place we’ll lose that market,” Conley said. “This is Econ 101: once you lose a market, its very difficult to get that market back.”


Wetland Restoration May Reduce Flood Risks

A recent study says erosion and runoff are hurting wetland systems in the Lake Superior Basin, and its authors believe it’s making northern Wisconsin more vulnerable to flood damage. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association studied the relationship between wetlands, land use and storms after flooding caused around $35 million in damage to northern Wisconsin two years ago.

Historic logging and agriculture practices combined with the region’s clay soils are causing water to move more quickly off the land and carving deeper stream beds, according to Kyle Magyera, study co-author and local government outreach specialist for the association.

“When you further couple some of that historical land use change with how our roads have been built and where there may be, say, undersized culverts or not enough culverts, those road systems are creating or accelerating the creation of those gullies or eroded features,” said Magyera.

He said erosion is disconnecting streams from wetlands, which means the land is less able to hold or slow the flow of water rushing downstream.

“To be crystal clear, we’re not suggesting at all that restoring wetlands could have prevented the catastrophic flooding that we saw earlier this (year) or in July of 2016,” he said. “But, we do believe that reducing flood risks really requires looking at and voluntarily repairing conditions upstream from flood-prone areas.”


Solar Lighting Company Celebrates New Product

A company based in Manitowoc publicly revealed a new form of solar-powered LED lighting Monday that its inventor says has the potential to revamp the industry. He also says the mid-sized northeastern Wisconsin city is a good place to do that work and officials are hopeful it could give the community a boost.  

Energy Bank founder and CEO Neal Verfuerth said the new FUSION system is cheaper and more efficient than other solar powered lighting because it takes power directly from solar panels to lighting units instead of transforming it into an alternating current and sending it through the power grid.

“Everything on the market today that is solar lighting has a battery and a lot of expensive apparatuses to make it grid-connected,” Verfuerth said. “This doesn’t have that.”

Energy Bank got off the ground in 2014 with a state economic development loan of $250,000. It had eight employees then and now employs 18 full-time and four part-time workers. The company says the FUSION system is already in use in factories and some big box stores.


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