Grass fires keep fire departments on toes

By Mary Ann Redeker
Emporia Gazette – April 20, 2015

During fires, firefighters ride a Polaris Ranger to reach harder accessible places. “It’s a great thing to have,” Olpe Fire Chief Bob Miller said. Photo by Jakub Stepanovic.

During fires, firefighters ride a Polaris Ranger to reach harder accessible places. “It’s a great thing to have,” Olpe Fire Chief Bob Miller said. Photo by Jakub Stepanovic.

Editor’s Note: This story is the second part in a two-part series focusing on grass fires in the Flint Hills area. Part one, which focused on pasture burning, controlled burn tips and burning regulations ran in Saturday’s edition of The Gazette.

The smell of land and pastures burning has been in the air recently and with that has come an increase in the number of grass fires, keeping area fire departments busy.
Most fire departments have been able to handle those smaller grass fires but sometimes with ever-changing conditions, fires can grow, thus prompting departments to need assistance.
Emporia Fire Chief Jack Taylor said his department gets a boost from outlying fire departments and response teams, which help provide mutual aid if needed, in times of multiple situations.
Mutual aid is the agreement between two or more departments that they will respond to assist each other, resources permitting, when requested by the officer in charge of the designated responding department.
“We call on mutual aid from each other,” Taylor said. “We have a really excellent cooperative agreement between all of the fire districts here and we come to each other’s aid regularly. Between just the act of breaking away units when we can, and then calling on mutual aid from each other and even within the area … we may call Coffey County or Chase County, depending on the location and the resources that are engaged.
“In our mutual aid agreements and to date, those have all been gentlemen’s agreements, although we are in the process of formalizing a written agreement. We’ve done mutual aid for years and it’s been done well with the hand shake agreement.”
Automatic aid is a new venture for fire district 4 and Taylor said with automatic aid, the department has identified areas for the six other fire districts and Emporia, where they can all provide immediate assistance.
“In many areas of our fire districts, a neighboring department station is actually closer to an address than the jurisdictional department,” he said. “We have instituted an automatic mutual aid agreement that sends the designated department and the next closest department to the initial alarm. With that, we basically ignore imaginary district lines and get the closest station responding regardless of district and ultimately get more resources on scene to address the incident.
“This is especially important for those who are experiencing the fire to get the quickest response possible. This is also important with respect to our insurance classification for fire protection. In some cases, property owners in the fire districts may benefit on their fire insurance premiums.”
Other fire districts in Lyon County include fire departments in Admire/Allen, Americus, Hartford/Neosho Rapids, Miller, Olpe and Reading.
Reading Fire Chief Scott Wilkerson said mutual aid and automatic aid have been valuable assets to the smaller fire departments.
“We’ve called for both mutual and automatic aid,” he said. “We’re a small, volunteer department and some of us live outside town. Sometimes it’s difficult to get out on the scene. It’s been positive to work with other chiefs in the county. It’s not only a good thing for us, but for the community as well.”
Olpe Fire Chief Bob Miller said mutual aid has been very beneficial for his department.
“We are a small, volunteer fire department and many of our volunteers work other jobs during the day,” he said. “We’re not staffed like Emporia. It’s nice when we can call on other departments. Mutual aid is a wonderful asset. We’ll help them too if they should need the assistance, so it’s a two-way street.”
Taylor said through these mutual agreements, each department is responsible for their own costs.
“The only exception would be unless it’s such a large event that FEMA funds are requested for reimbursement, but those are very few and far between,” he said. “So with the typical mutual aid, each department is responsible for its own operating costs.
“If we were to respond to say Olpe or Americus, we would be responsible for the cost we would incur or any injuries that would come under our own workman’s comp. We’re totally responsible for the resources we send. In the apartment fire we had recently we had several departments that responded with mutual aid for us, and they are responsible for those costs.”
Through combined dispatch, departments are able to help assist each other in the areas where each may be lacking equipment.
“We use the gators and some others also have gator-type equipment,” Taylor said. “We just recently learned that the preserve over at Hartford … Neosho Rapids has equipment that they can bring out to help assist us, so they are on our list as well. Lyon County Road and Bridge recently has informed us that they have a water tanker that they can also bring out. Those are all things that in addition to what we have in each of the districts in Lyon County, they have a special piece of equipment that they can bring which is helpful.”
Miller said having special equipment available can also save on man-power hours.
“We have a Polaris Ranger that we acquired from a grant,” he said. “Some other departments have called us for assistance. It’s a great thing to have. In the past, guys would strap a five-pound Indian can that holds water to their backs and head out into the timber. That can wear guys out fairly quickly, so having the gator available can make a big difference.”
Taylor said it is difficult to put a number on the cost of responding to a fire, as each fire is different.
“The Lyon County Fire District 4, through contract, provides us $140,000 a year to provide services for them,” Taylor said. “Every fire depends upon how many resources we wind up sending. We have two grass rigs and two tenders that we can send from here for those grass fires. Sometimes it takes all of that plus the mutual aid and sometimes it only takes just the one grass rig, depending on the size of the fire.
“It is all dependent on the individual fire. We responded to one recently on Road K and in addition to the grass rigs and tenders we have, a couple of gators were made available to us by the Northeast Region Homeland Security Council. One of those is outfitted with a small tank and pump and gives us accessibility to more areas than the trucks we send, so we had those out there as well. We can use them to get to those difficult areas and in this case it was in some timber on the property.”
The amount of water used for a fire also depends on many factors, sometimes a little water is used and sometimes that amount is considerable. Foam may also be used to aid in putting a fire out.
“We might be able to take care of one fire with the water that’s on one grass rig,” Taylor said. “We also have the two grass rigs and two tenders, one that carries 3,000 gallons and one carries 1,000 gallons. We may have to refill those tenders several times. On a big mutual aid call, we may have any number of departments that bring their tenders and refill those several times.
“There is a class A foam that is used on ordinary combustibles. We would typically use class A foam on timber that’s more difficult to extinguish or on hay bales where it’s compressed and on fires where it’s more difficult to make penetration. It’s fairly expensive, so it’s not that we don’t want to use it, we just don’t use it where we don’t need it.”
With mutual aid and volunteers, Taylor said payment varies from district to district.
“Every fire district is different so some may give a stipend per call, some may provide a monthly retainer, but I can tell you if they do, it’s very small,” he said. “We maintain a group of volunteers with the EFD and they receive no compensation. They are true volunteers. If they did receive an amount, it would be relatively small and would not totally reimburse them for the time that they may be away from their full-time job.”
Hazards of the job
Hazards of the job occur, such as a fire truck sustaining damage or getting stuck on the way to a fire.
“We have been fortunate; we have not had a truck burn up,” Taylor said. “We may have had some minor damage here or there, but we have not had one that was damaged by fire that it would need to be replaced.
“Last summer, I think one of the departments had a truck that was damaged by fire. If a truck did receive damage, the department would have to go to the fire board and explain what happened and let them know they need to replace a truck. Those are the processes we would have to go through.”
Taylor said another obstacle departments face is fire trucks getting stuck when fighting field fires, since the fields are full of obstacles that tall grass and smoke obscure.
“In addition, there may have been sufficient moisture to make the ground wet and soft, but the vegetation is still dead, dry and ready to burn,” he said. “That makes it even more difficult to maneuver in the pastures and fields when they are burning. Add to that the weight of the trucks when the tanks are filled with water.
“At just over eight pounds per gallon, the water carried in the tanks can easily add 2,500 to 3,000 pounds to the weight of the trucks. Even with mud tires and four-wheel drive, we still get stuck from time to time. With a Homeland Security grant, we were able to outfit a Gator with a small tank and pump to gain access to more inaccessible areas to help with that issue.”
Miller said sometimes his department can run into communication difficulties if too many are on the same radio channel.
“We’re all synched together and sometimes there can be difficulties outside the county,” he said. “If we get a couple of big fires going at once, it can be hectic. Overall it’s a good system though.”
Wilkerson said his department tries to be proactive rather than reactive and then having to operate in fire-fighting mode.
“We have found it’s a good thing for our volunteers to get out in the community and become good stewards,” he said. “We like to get to know our farmers and ranchers so they feel more comfortable coming to us. We try to work with them and help them do their prescribed burns. Working together is a plus. It’s so much better than the alternative.”

%d bloggers like this: