Kansas Forest Service article

By Ross Hauck, Fire Management Coordinator
Kansas Firewire – June/July 2017

On March 27, 2016 I said I would never see another fire in Kansas like the one I had just experienced in Barber County. Three hundred and sixty thousand acres is a big fire in anybody’s book. it came roaring out of the Oklahoma Panhandle, fueled by high winds, low humidity and an abundance of fuel all of which were ready to burn.

Enter March 4, 2017. Total acres may not be compiled yet, but it is going to be somewhere just short of a half million acres primarily in Clark County extending into to Comanche, Meade and Fort counties. When you add in the other eleven reported fires during those three days, the total is approaching 520,000 acres. And with all the resources on all those fires, we broke some equipment, but all the responders went back to their respective communities, may were tired, some had some bumps and bruises, but all went home. That is a remarkable feat in its own right. It hurts to see homes, outbuildings, hay crops, livestock and pets lost, but there is nothing more valuable than human life.

So how did the deployment of resources in 2017 compare to the historically significant Anderson Creek fire in 2016. There are varying opinions and observations from those involved in all the incidents. But from my vantage point, we saw some improvements. For starters, while still extremely flawed, the deployment of local and mutual aid resources improved in 2017. At Anderson Creek in-state resources were sought through Mutual-Aid.net and Comprehensive Resource Management and Credentialing System (CRMCS) as well as social media, that was like an all-points bulletin among friends and it was chaotic to say the least.

Equipment and personnel were arriving anytime day and night, some rested and ready to go to work, some were tired, but thought they should go directly to the fire line while still others were ready to get some much needed sleep. Thus, planning for the next 12 to 24 hours was a logistical and planning nightmare. Some came ready to stay three days, others were there for 12 hours, so at times confusion was in control. But dedicated volunteers with the truest “can do” attitude did a lot of remarkable work in four days. What most people don’t know is that while Anderson Creek was sucking up the media attention and resources, on day one, Harvey and Reno Counties had their own challenges with a 17,000 acre fire that kept locals running. So, did we end the 2016 fire season with room for improvement, of course. But given the hand they were dealt, Medicine Lodge was spared and again thankfully everyone returned home safely.

The State of Kansas did step in at Anderson Creek to supply two Kansas Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters with Bambi Buckets, while their use was limited, once they arrived were utilized to fly several sorties. Early on in the incident there was some misunderstanding about cost, utilization and perhaps some other factors that impacted their utilization. Then on Easter Sunday morning Mother Nature stepped in to blanket the entire area with about four inches of wet snow and for the most part, contained the fire.

Now we see March 2017 fires. Once again the Starbuck like Anderson Creek came out of the Oklahoma Panhandle, pushed by strong, sustained winds, low humidity and even more light fuels due to good moisture in late summer, 2016. But, while not totally prepared for the on slot, the state was aware that the possibility of large fires was real. Kansas Forest Service had been in communication with our partners to the south and the week prior, KFS requested the KANG Blackhawk helicopters be on alert. That time we dodged the bullet. The next week we were not so fortunate, Reno County started with the Jupiter and Highland fires. Those fires were followed by ten more Fire Management Assistance grant requests, seven of which received a declaration (some fires were grouped into a Complex, so those losses were captured in one of the seven FMAg declarations). The west half of the state was in trouble, in any direction from Cheyenne to Reno and from Seward to Wilson (perhaps further, but you get my point.)

This time resources became a scarce commodity as the state was dry everywhere and many departments felt they could not risk sending resources on a several hours drive from home in case they too begin to burn. One of the KFS Fire personnel was in the State Emergency Operation Center when the request for engines came in and that Emergency Manager had to be told none were available, that is a tough call.

By about day two, the complexity of the Highland fire had exceeded the capacity of the state Type 3 Incident Management Team and a “short” Type 2 was ordered. By the next day, resources on the Starbuck were stretched thin and five Strike Teams of Type 6 engines (brush trucks) from Colorado and Nebraska were requested and headed our way. Because they are Federal resources, the Type 2 team and Strike teams had to be ordered through KFS, as KFS is the Kansas agency holding the agreement with the USDA Forest Service. This story could go on much longer, but I think the more important message is a two or more fold issue.

While the dispatching did improve, if ever so slightly, it was not efficient. Mutual-Aid.net and CRMCS are still floundering systems, the two systems don’t communicate, departments have not uploaded their deployable resources, and the way volunteer chiefs are notified is haphazard by all accounts. We have to fix this problem now. Some of these systems have been on board for 10 years and still not working well. If I couldn’t get my car to run right in 10 years, I would replace it with one that would.

From my prospective and others, Kansas Forest Service Fire Program is grossly under staffed and underfunded. KFS has four fire personnel, Oklahoma has eighty-four with a fire budget of $8 million, Kansas $1 million. Oklahoma, staffs 47 engines, 47 bulldozers, Kansas Forest Service has two engines. I think you can quickly see the disparity. For comparison, Kansas has 50 million acres of land, Oklahoma, about 45 million.

Perhaps the overaching problem is that Kansans need to be reminded that wildfire is part of our culture and no matter what we do, fires will continue, we need to recognize they constitute an emergency and we need to prepare accordingly, to include adequate state funding of volunteer and national resources, those that come with a price tag that shouldn’t be left at home because of funding.

One other action that was a direct result of this spring’s fires was the Governor putting together a working group to get some motion behind these problems. It will be baby steps at first, but hopefully there will be improvements to many of these issues before we need to exercise them again.

Before I end this article, I want to acknowledge two state legislators for their efforts in getting the Great Plains Forest Fire Compact through the legislative process, Representative Melissa Rooker and Senator Tom Hawk. Without their leadership we wouldn’t have that tool in the toolbox.


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

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