APRIL 2, 2016: “Sweat and luck: How firefighters fought the biggest Kansas fire in a century”

BY OLIVER MORRISON
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On March 22, Bruce Stansberry was welding a piece of pipe just outside Freedom, Okla.

He was on a small hill, facing south, when his wife, Dixie, called. She had been carefully kneading flour into egg whites for an angel food cake, so it wasn’t until the local fire department called that she looked up through her kitchen window and saw the wall of flames.

She sounded hysterical, he said, and when he saw the flames he knew she was right.

“This isn’t good,” he said he told her. “This is a bad situation.” There was nothing but dry grass and canyons north of their house, he thought. And inside those canyons, like a long line of giant matchsticks winding its way toward Kansas, were scattered thickets of red cedar trees, which, when ignited, firefighters and ranchers say, explode.

The fire had already consumed a couple of football fields of pasture land into flames 15 feet high, Stansberry said.

Stansberry, 79, grabbed a shovel and a bucket and drove his motorized cart to Anderson Creek, where he started throwing water on the reeds under the highway bridge.

He was the first of hundreds of people to play the role of firefighter in this blaze. But he, unlike many of the other better trained firefighters over the next few days, had Mother Nature on his side: Strong winds were blowing the fire away from his house.

Those winds and that fire would, over the next couple of days, trap firefighters, kill hundreds of cattle, rip apart fences, knock over power lines, burn up tractors, eviscerate bridges, reduce more than 40 buildings to rubble, force the evacuation of entire towns and cause millions of dollars in damage….Continue reading

APRIL 16, 2016: “As red cedars spread across Kansas, so does risk of unstoppable wildfires”

BY OLIVER MORRISON
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When the Anderson Creek fire burned over 370,000 acres of land, some firefighters said that everything conspired against them.

The fire combined intense wind, a super dry climate and a couple years of heavy grass growth into unstoppable walls of flame.

But many firefighters over 40 said that fire was eerily familiar.

“I thought it was another 1996,” said Roger Robison, one of the fire chiefs in Barber County.

“Almost the same,” agreed Pat McCullough, another county fire chief.

The 1996 fire started within a few miles of the fire in 2016. The fires carved out a nearly identical path, they said, moving due north and covering about 100,000 acres.

The difference between the two fires, Robison and McCullough said, was that in 2016 the wind changed direction without slowing down, creating a fire head more than 30 miles long.

There was one other crucial difference: tens of thousands more red cedar trees.

Firefighters described how, despite their best attempts to cut the fire off, the intense heat and flames from the red cedars pitched the fire three-quarters of a mile over roadblocks and beyond the banks of rivers.

Barber County can’t control the winds or the rain, said Ted Alexander, a county rancher, but it can control the red cedars that have provided the most salient new fuel for Kansas’ two most recent, and increasingly large, wildfires.

They were lucky: The wind changed course, turning back on itself, just as the fire was threatening to jump the Medicine Lodge River and engulf the town of Medicine Lodge.

Next time, Alexander said, those 2,000 residents might not be so lucky.

“If we don’t take advantage of the situation we have now and learn from it and apply it,” he said, “then in 20 years the next fire is going to be even bigger and more devastating.”….Continue Reading

APRIL 2, 2016: “Fire has lessons for officials in Kansas, Oklahoma”

Fire officials from Kansas and Oklahoma will be dissecting the Anderson Creek fire for months to come.

“I think everybody at every level is going to learn a lot from” that fire, said Eric Ward, a member of the Kansas Forest Service who worked on the fire. “We’ll be spending weeks and months beyond, discussing what went well, what could’ve gone better, how to put it in historical context and what this means for the future.”

One challenge was cooperation between Oklahoma and Kansas as the fire crossed state lines. Typically, Oklahoma would have taken responsibility for the fire, but Kansas is one of the few states in the country that has not passed legislation allowing it to share firefighting resources with other states in the region, according to George Geissler, director of the Oklahoma Forestry Service. So the relationship between the two states, he said, “is confusing and unique.”

Oklahoma’s compact with other states allowed it to call in a more advanced incident management team from Texas than what Kansas has available within its own state boundaries.

The Kansas Forest Service budget for 2016 was about $3 million, while the Oklahoma Forestry Service budget was about $87 million. But Oklahoma could not send its resources across the state line for liability reasons, Geissler said.

Experts and local firefighters agreed that Oklahoma’s resources would not have made much difference with such an unstoppable fire.

“The fire didn’t get that big because there was no agreement,” said Rodney Wittinger, a member of the Forest Service team. “It did because the wind was blowing 50 miles per hour and the 15 percent humidity. It was just a crappy day to try to fight fire in any aspect of it.”

The Forest Service, he said, is working on those agreements and the legislation it will take to make them happen.