Fires a constant threat for area fire crews

Jacquelyn Nelson
Hesston Record – April 10, 2014
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – May 6, 2014

Incessant Kansas wind, dry conditions and plenty of dried out fuel have made grass fires and stubble fires a constant threat for area fire crews.

“Last Wendesday was a scary day out there. The winds were horrible with gusts up to 50-plus and sustained winds in the mid-40s,” said Hesston Emergency Services Director Russ Buller.

The geography and demographics of the Hesston community means Buller and his crews are facing a wider range of fire threats than other surrounding towns.

“We really have little wildland potential. We have mostly ditch fires, and there is the potential for wheat stubble. But we have more heavy industry and oler and newer homes and big commercial areas and we cover some rural areas,” said Buller.

When faced with a rural grass fire, Buller said there is no standard operating procedure and conditions of each fire must be assessed.

“There are many outlying factors to consider. Weather conditions, fuel, structures and we are all good at knowing when to make a call. The information that dispatch gets and sends out,” he said.

As an experienced department, Hesston responders work a matrix to account for the myriad of factors that can affect a fire’s size, duration and risk to structures and responders.

“Officers have handled a lot of grass fires and are capable of doing the kind of matrix and looking at variables, staff, equipment, weather, risks, taking all that into account and have a good idea how to handle a five-acre grass fire with a 10 mile-per-hour wind and gauge the size of the event. If we are 50 feet from a hedgerow or a wheat field, or there is a structure down wind, we are looking at potentials and doing the math if we need a pumper to block a fire or if we need another grass unit,” he said. With ears of experience, Buller said firefighters have an intuitive knowledge of how to best approach a grass fire.

“Fighting grass fires is a lot of common sense and paying attention to your surroundings. You have to fight fires from the burnt side. You don’t want to be standing in the fuel. You have to pay attention to topography, creeks and gopher holes. You don’t want to drop your truck into one or have one of your crew roll an ankle. Terrain can be a challenge.

“Concerns are also the temperature and weather conditions. The hotter and drier it gets, the more health concerns you can have on scene. If we are on scene more than 30-minutes, we have an ambulance respond to keep responders hydrated and let them cool off,” he said.

Many of the fires sweeping across fields and open grasslands were not accidents, but purposefully lit.

“So often the cause is a mismanaged controlled burn. People do the controlled burn, and then the weather changes, or they don’t get it properly extinguished and leave a fire unattended and don’t take precautions. The wind kicks up and a spark travels,” said Buller.

The message from Smokey the Bear rings true for forests to Kansas grasslands. A frequent call-out for area departments is, “a controlled burn, out of control.”

“A controlled burn is a farmer with brush. Most of these folks are well-intended and skip one, or some, of the safety steps. An out of control controlled burn means it is one that was intentionally lit and has gotten out of the control of the person who lit it,” said Buller.

Hesston Emergency Services has been running calls for the past two weeks, primarily on mutual aid assists for surrounding communities more prone to grass fires.

“We are impacted more from a mutual aid standpoint. The last one or two of our bigger efforts the last couple of weeks has been helping our neighbors,” said Buller.

Cooperation between area departments can be critical to limit damage in rural communities with small, volunteer, departments.

“Moundridge was already tied up and another started in Halstead. Because there was a structure in danger, it took three departments to control the burn. Walton was going to a fire and responded to an assist in Marion. Burrton had a house fire that involved Reno County. We work together,” said Buller.

One of the most severe and recent examples of critical cross-department coordination and cooperation was the fire in Zimmerdale on August 23, 2011.

“Zimmerdale was a huge event. There were poor conditions; it was a very large fire event in terms of equipment needed and the amount of damage and loss involved. That is where mutual aid is critical and every department in Harvey County was involved. It was a very taxing fire,” said Buller.

Exceptional grass fires, however, are rare for the Hesston Fire department.

“The Hesston district’s risks for grass fires is fairly low. A higher percentage of our district is tilled and there is less pasture land or wildland than there are in surrounding areas. We don’t have much equipment for grass fires. We bring the grass truck and a tanker,” said Buller.

Despite being Good Samaritans, Buller maintains consistent fire protection for the Hesston community.

“We try not to leave the town unprotected. We have one in town and staffing to get started while we call for mutual aid. We have the equipment to get a scene going,” said Buller.

The cooperation between Harvey, Reno and McPherson County communities is exceptional and provides life and property-saving services when residents need it most.

“We all need assistance at times. Cooperation between departments in this area is excellent, and that is not common. Some other places don’t do as well and have the kind of partnership to take care of each other like we do here,” said Buller.

As members of the mutual aid agreement, Buller said Hesston is quick to ask for assistance rather than risk taking on a larger-than anticipated event. The size of area departments makes the mutual aid agreement a key part of keeping communities safe.

“We are very quick to call on mutual aid. We start early and then issue a disregard. We have agreements and support from our neighbors. Not all departments have the staffing needed for every situation because of the volume of calls or the staffing levels. When mutual aid calls come in, the requests are very specific. They ask for specific equipment and manpower. We work through PageOut and look at staffing and dispatch,” said Buller.

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster