KHP Trooper Tod: ‘Our job was to protect the firemen, the real heroes’

By Becky Kiser
Hays Post – March 28, 2017

Photo by Trooper Hileman

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Every work day is different for each Kansas Highway Patrol trooper.

But March 6 was a day different enough for Technical Trooper Tod Hileman of Troop D in Hays, he probably will never forget it.

That Monday started out fairly routine for Hileman, who serves as the KHP Public Resource Officer for all of northwest Kansas.

Hileman was driving back to Hays on Interstate 70 after presenting a public program in Marysville.

As he continued westbound, Hileman began seeing smoke in fields north of the interstate at Ellsworth.

“I heard my law enforcement partners on the radio asking where the fire was, how big is it, how fast is it going,” Hileman said.

Very strong gusty winds out of the north pushed the smoke across I-70.

“I stopped a few miles west of the Wilson interchange in the median to take pictures and started uploading them to my Trooper Tod KHP Facebook and Twitter accounts to warn people, telling Wilson residents to keep an eye on it,” Hileman said. He and his law enforcement partners began a radio discussion of whether a mandatory evacuation should be implemented in Wilson.

“I could see fire out in field quite a ways off. One minute it was 50 yards away from interstate, the next minute it was there. I wondered if it would jump I-70 with the high winds. Then I saw two fire trucks and thought maybe they’ll contain it.

“Next thing I know, the fire got to westbound I-70, and had a mind of its own. It twisted up into the air and right down into the median. I was like, wow, that is incredible.”

Trooper Hileman has been hailed as a hero, even nationally, for his quick thinking and what he did next.

He does not consider himself a hero.

“Everything was happening so fast. Once it jumped into the median, (emergency responders) behind me said we gotta get I-70 shut down. I jumped the car onto I-70 and was trying to turn people around–signaling them to go back, go back. To the west, it wasn’t too bad. To the east, you couldn’t hardly see anything. So I had to stop cars, not knowing if there was a fireman standing 50 feet into that smoke cloud who could be hit.”

It was a confusing scene, filled with dense smoke and wind-blown embers and ash.

“Our job there was to protect the firemen there and let them do their job. They’re the real heroes,” Hileman insisted. “They’re the ones going into that stuff.”

He first got one semi to safety by telling the driver to “angle it through the median and turn around.”

“I couldn’t leave those vehicles just sit there on I-70 because I knew fire was going to engulf that whole area pretty quick.”

As Hileman continued turning other traffic around, a second semi he had told to turn around and go at a 45-degree angle through the median started spinning it tires.

“I was thinking, I hope he can get that thing out of there. I walked up to the truck and asked if he could ‘rock’ it out of there. Then, wow, it was incredibly smoky all of a sudden. I looked behind us and it was…the fire was in front of us. It was behind us now. And I was like, we just have to get out of here.

“I told him to get in my car. We went west driving through all of that, praying.”

Hileman wound up speeding west on I-70 through the smoke and fire with the stranded truck driver in the passenger seat as flames leaped towards both sides of the KHP vehicle.

The audio on the in-car microphone was accidentally disabled when the passenger got into the KHP vehicle, reached up to balance himself and hit the microphone.

What was missed on the dash cam video?

“Just me telling him, like six times, to put a seatbelt on. And there were probably some prayers in there somewhere,” Hileman admits.

Kansas news media utilized his dashcam video and the frightening scenes also appeared on national television newscasts.

According to Hileman, Kansas Highway Patrol officers train for vehicle fires but not wildfires, although they do study information about grass fires.

“I’ve been in a lot of fires like that. That one though, moved so fast. It was crazy.”

By state law, only the Kansas Department of Transportation can shut down the state’s interstate highways, Hileman explained.

“If KHP is telling you to turn around, there’s a really good reason, a short-term emergency. We’re not trying to make your life harder. We’re trying to save your life.”

Hileman is a Colby native and has served as a KHP Trooper for 20 years.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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