Lyon County losses mounting

By Bobbi Mlynar
Emporia Gazette – April 5, 2014

Keith Schattak of Osage County Fire District #5 lights a backfire Thursday night after a pasture fire spread from northeast Lyon County. Photo by Matthew Fowler.

Keith Schattak of Osage County Fire District #5 lights a backfire Thursday night after a pasture fire spread from northeast Lyon County. Photo by Matthew Fowler.


Losses from ongoing episodes of fires are mounting faster than county officials can count them.

“We don’t anticipate having any numbers right away,” said Rick Frevert, Lyon County Emergency Management director. “… We’re trying to pull it together and we’re struggling.”

The most important number — serious injuries to firefighters or citizens — so far has been held to zero; however, equipment and property damage has been extensive and expensive.

Hundreds of fires during the past couple of weeks — both controlled and out of control — have drawn firefighters and equipment into this area from at least 13 other departments, in addition to the Emporia Fire Department, Fire District 4, Reading Benefit Fire District, and volunteer departments from towns throughout Lyon County, Frevert said.

“Wabaunsee, Osage, Coffey, Greenwood (counties) come in on the south end. Greenwood was helping Olpe. I think we had Chase, we had Morris County, we had Harveyville in here,” he said. “We weren’t gaining. So then we reached out to the state and Riley, Pottawatomie and Geary County sent several pieces of equipment down.”

Manpower, vehicles and actual losses from the fires all are among the factors that will need to be tallied and reported to the state.

“It’s been expensive on the mutual aid coming in, but it’s also been expensive for the ranchers,” Frevert said.

Homes, barns and other outside structures have been destroyed, with an estimate on one barn loss hovering around $100,000.

Another rancher lost an estimated $35,000 in a fire near Reading. He’d just fertilized a field of brome with nitrogen, Frevert said. Before the nitrogen had time to be absorbed into the soil, the fire had swept across the field, destroying the brome and the fertilizer along with it.

High winds switched directions frequently and sent controlled burns galloping across the county, burning grasses and structures that stood in their paths.

“On Saturday (March 29), we had 200 controlled burns called in,” Frevert said. “Ten of them got away from the people that night when the wind switched. Out of the fires Saturday, 14 of them re-kindled and got away and we had to fight them on Sunday.”

With more brush dead and dried on the ground, and more trees dying from several years of drought, this year’s available fuel load is greater than in recent years, he said. Combined with low humidity and high winds, “it burns and it burns, it doesn’t just burn and go out,” he said.

“Green hedge doesn’t usually burn, right? … Those hedge trees are so dry they’re catching fire and they’re staying lit.”

The pace has been brutal for all of the firefighters, and perhaps more so for the volunteers from the smaller towns who serve double-duty. Like other volunteer departments, Reading firefighters have responded to mutual aid calls from one end of the county to the other.

“It’s a brotherhood, and we’re willing to help each other the best we can, but it’s really put a big struggle on us this year,” said Reading Benefit Fire District Chief Scott Wilkerson. “There’s a lot of fuel out there and the weather really hasn’t helped us at this point.”

Departments automatically request mutual aid on any type of structure fire, or fires combined with the possibility of high winds, and help comes quickly and at no charge from surrounding towns and counties, such as Miller, Hartford, Emporia, Osage and Coffey counties, Lebo, and others.

“And those guys are great,” Wilkerson said. “I mean, we ask and if they can get us some personnel, they will. …”

It is common for Reading volunteers to patrol in their personal vehicles, after they get off work, to check old fires for rekindling and to keep an eye on what’s happening in their areas and let the public know they are available.

“Reading is a bedroom community,” Wilkerson said. “Everybody has a job outside of Reading, either Emporia, Ottawa, Topeka. … We’re very flexible. We get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and go to a barn fire and I’ve got guys I’ve got to release at 6 o’clock, that are getting ready to go to work, to go to their jobs.”

Thursday evening, firefighters were on the northeast side of the county to tend to a barn fire.

“It’s a barn full of hay, so all we could do is basically stand by, defensive mode, to keep it from getting into the … grass to have a wildfire,” Wilkerson said.

The Reading district late last month lost use of one of its grass/rescue trucks when it became stuck in a small ravine it already had gone through several times. Volunteers from Miller had responded and were manning the Reading truck in a mutual aid effort.

“This time, it just slipped, versus going,” Wilkerson said. “It was run down by flames. It was actually engulfed, a live fire.”

One volunteer sustained burns on his hands, and the truck now is being repaired at an estimated cost of $60,000.

“But it could have been a fatality,” he said. “I’d rather … pay for a truck than have to go to that individual’s house and tell them that we lost them. … A vehicle can be replaced. A person can’t.

“We had an ATV rollover as well, and that could have been a potential fatality as well.”

The district is trying to be proactive in assisting farmers and ranchers who need to burn off the dead materials, despite the danger of fire.

As time and fire calls allow, Wilkerson said, the department wants to educate its constituents that it is there to help and to give the firefighters a call to talk about and plan the burns.

“It may not be on their time, but if we can schedule it to where it’s convenient for us and my guys, we’re more than willing to educate them on the prescribed burns,” he said.

This month, fires need to be confined to large brush piles, ditches, and other debris rather than traditional agriculture-related fires.

“This weekend, we have possibly three landowners that have contacted us that would like to burn some of their stuff, and we’re going to help them,” Wilkerson said. “But at any point in that giving aid to help them we get a call, we have to put that out and proceed to a fire.”

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster

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