County fire chief under fire

By Robert Pierce
Southwest Daily Times – April 4, 2017

An insurance adjuster examines the charred remains of cars after the March fires in Seward County. Photo by Robert Pierce.

Seward County firefighters handled much in the way of blazes in the county during March.

Farmers were a big help in containing the fires, but many felt as though the county’s fire department was not doing its job as effectively as possible at times.

Many local farmers were on hand for Monday’s county commission meeting to speak about those concerns.

One farmer, Max Louderback, who farms near Arkalon Park in eastern Seward County, said he felt the water situation could have been handled more effectively when fighting fires near his property.

“These fire trucks were going 14 miles to the ethanol plant filling up, which took at least 30 minutes, maybe longer, to get back to the fire,” he said.

Cecil Milhon, who also lives near Kismet, said he believes firefighters did not completely contain a fire at the time it was called under control.

“I felt when they called the fire supposedly out at 9:30 Saturday, the fire was not out at 9:30 Saturday,” he said. “As long as there’s something down there smoldering or something burning, there should be a fire truck sitting down there.”

Milhon said a fire started the Monday following that fire that was called a new blaze, but he said he does not believe that was the case.

“I’d have to disagree,” he said. “I was there. I called it in. I wasn’t very nice when I called it in, but I meant exactly what I said. There should’ve been a fire truck down there until that fire was out. Then come back and say that was a separate fire and it was arson and accuse me of starting it? That’s totally uncalled for.”

Milhon said he was also accused of disrupting firefighters at the scene, which he said is false.

“Yeah I had a run-in with the assistant fire chief, but whenever we led those fire trucks in there Thursday night through my ranch, the assistant chief didn’t have the slightest idea where he wanted to go or where we were going,” he said. “I asked where he wanted to go. There needs to be a new structure or something to figure out what’s going on. If those two guys running the thing don’t know what’s going on, I’d say let’s get rid of them and get somebody in there that can.”

Clay Louderback, who likewise farms near Arkalon, said he and others knew the wind was going to switch directions the Friday that fire took place. He said individuals in the area did all they could to push limbs back to the burn area to control the situation, all the while asking for help from firefighters.

“Later on that night, they came down and started helping,” he said. “At 10 o’clock, they pull them out with flames six, eight foot tall still burning because they had reached their hours, tired. They said that the chief would set down on the road and watch it. If it was to get out of control, he would call them back in, but with a 30 mile an hour wind and the flames that were there, how far do you think this would’ve went? Miles before you could’ve got help there. Our livelihoods depend on grass for our cattle, and he jeopardized our livelihood that night.”

Seward County Fire Chief Andrew Barkley said in a statement, many of the concerns addressed by farmers would be answered, first addressing the lack of a burn ban in the county.

“In 2000, 2001, the Seward County Board of County Commissioners adopted a control burn resolution allowing the fire department to authorize control burns on weather conditions and other factors,” he said. “The penalty for this violation of this control burn policy is a $50 fine after being presented to commission to enforce. Since that time, there has only been one burn ban issued in Seward County. That was in 2011. Burn ban violation is $500 fine and again brought to you for enforcement.”

Based on facts at hand, Barkley said a burn ban is not recommended at this time, and none of the grass fires in March were caused by illegal or escaped control burns.

“We do stand firm that we will support the county commissioners if a burn ban is placed into effect, but our hands our tied until that ban is removed by commission,” he said. “We would like to be able to see our residents be able to remove fire fields from their property to help reduce fire dangers from around their homes.”

Barkley said statistics from the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office show that since 2000, only one wildfire had occurred in Seward County before this year that was in excess of 1,000 acres.

He then discussed the March 3 fire, which fire officials have now dubbed the “Black Monday” fire, which started along Highway 83 and Road 13 in Seward County.

“That wildfire burned 3,126 acres, losing four residents,” he said. “This fire burned about one thousand acres an hour and was contained within three hours. No statewide resources were available from us from either the State of Kansas or the State of Oklahoma. Our only mutual aid came from Stevens County and Haskell County. The reason we could not get any aid from Kansas or Oklahoma was due to the number of fires burning that day.”

Barkley briefly touched on a fire truck that was destroyed during the fighting of one blaze.

“Crews attempted to defend the apparatus and were given the order to evacuate by me,” he said.

Barkley later talked about a fire near Arkalon Park on March 23, which he said occurred due to a mechanical fire at a commercial business along Road P.

“That wildfire burned 1,546 acres, losing one abandoned building,” he said. “That fire burned at approximately 386 acres an hour and was contained in four hours.”

Barkley then briefly touched on Max Louderback’s comments about the use of water at the nearby ethanol plant.

“We had 6,000 gallons of water staged just south of the Milhon residence,” he said. “We had 3,000 gallons of water staged on Road 11. Arkalon Ethanol was used as a strong water supply.”

While many of the farmers at Monday’s meeting believed the fires were mishandled, Barkley said the training firefighters receive is required, and he stands behind the work of his crews.

“I’m not about to place any member of our command staff out from criminal charges due to somebody being hurt or injured or fatally killed,” he said. “Since Day 1, we’ve been very open and honest about our numbers. We’ve fought hard to hire daytime staff to fill the void. We held two previous town hall meetings to discuss these issues. We had an overall attendance of 60 residents. After the meetings, 58 of them supported daytime staff with our fire department after our presentation.”

Some farmers likewise felt going to using paid firefighters, rather than traditional volunteers, was not the direction to go, but Barkley said today’s times call for the use of paid staff.

“We are here now in 2017, not 1977, and we can no longer safely and effectively operate like we did 40 years ago,” he said.

Seward County Administrator April Warden, a longtime county employee, said she has seen the numbers of volunteers go up and down in her time with the county.

“It’s been the history of the fire department,” she said. “I would say that it’s unfair to say that it’s because of the current fire chief that we have. That is an issue that we have faced in my tenure here.”

Warden said when she first started with the county, many businesses, including power and gas companies, encouraged employees to volunteer with the fire department. This, she said, is no longer the case though.

“You will find that a lot of those businesses are no longer locally owned, and they do not support individuals leaving for fires during the day,” she said. “They are paid employees by those companies, and they expect them to be there during their working hours.”

Warden, who lives in a rural part of Seward County, said she believes in neighbors helping neighbors, and this is something she said was witnessed during all of the fires.

“I think it is awesome to witness all of the people that came out and were a part of that, but I can honestly say that the volunteers we have today aren’t your lifelong residents that are coming out to be volunteer firefighters anymore,” she said.


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

2 Responses to “County fire chief under fire”

  1. 1 Anonymous April 5, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    The “Black Monday” fire was on March 6th not March 3rd.

  2. 2 Anonymous April 4, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Some of you people complaining should go to it both my boys are on the fire department and were out there for long hours give it a try and see how well you all do probably no better so the way I look at it most of these guys are volunteers trying to save your property next time if you think you can do better have at don’t call the fire department simple as that


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