March 24, 2017, “Why those battling historic fires had no help until it was too late

When the town of Englewood started to burn March 6, the neighboring town of Ashland, 25 miles away, responded.

That Monday, Dave Redger, the Ashland volunteer fire chief, brought all five brush trucks and two red fire engines and all his volunteers.

As the fire tore through Englewood, Redger and his men traveled from house to house, putting out whatever fires they could, saving some, losing others.

But then the wind shifted, threatening to burn down Ashland, and Englewood was left on its own.

“We left them boys to fend for themselves, to come to Ashland and come save it,” Redger said. “Our county doesn’t have enough trucks to cover the county in a fire this size.”

On March 6, despite heroic efforts of many, the volunteer firefighting system that most of Kansas relies upon was stretched so thin, it broke down.

For the second straight year, Kansas tried to fight one of the largest fires in the nation, by acres burned, with the fewest state resources per capita devoted to fighting fires.

The fire burned 711,950 acres – more than ever before – under weather conditions so intense and unusual that many firefighters said the fire couldn’t be stopped. The flames looked 30 and 40 feet tall. The wind pushed the fire so fast that firefighters driving 50, 60 or even 70 mph down the highway couldn’t get in front of it.

The humidity was in the single digits, leaving the grass brittle and dry. Embers would ignite new fires a quarter mile away.

Many towns and counties at the center of the fire called for help on their radios, but none came during that first 24 hours because the other departments were too busy with their own fires.

So instead of working with what might normally be 70 trucks from fire departments two counties deep in every direction, firefighters were working alone, for long stretches, often without sleep.

People called to say their houses were burning and were left to put out the fire on their own.

“There was nobody to come,” Redger said. “We live out here in the middle of nowhere with not a whole lot of resources. It took them till Tuesday afternoon to get something other than just us. We did well: We didn’t kill anybody and we saved two towns.”…Continue reading

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

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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

The following story about red cedar trees won second place in environmental reporting for the Kansas Press Association.

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

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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

June 16, 2017Damage from historic wildfires more than $80 million

Back-to-back years of the worst wildfires in state history could end up costing as much as $100 million.

Damage exceeded $80 million, according to reports by the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service. The roughly $50 million from this year alone includes the cost of 3,700 miles of burned fences and 4,000 to 8,000 dead cattle.

It doesn’t include the loss of 40 homes and more than 100 additional structures, such as barns and garages. Nor does it include the cost of replacing burned power lines, the more than $3 million spent on firefighting or the thousands of hours of lost wages from volunteer firefighters across the state.

As the scale of the economic losses have become more apparent, so have problems in the state’s firefighting response.

Local fire departments often found themselves asking for help on Facebook because there wasn’t an effective statewide system.

The areas that suffered the most damage in Clark County this year had almost no firefighting help during the first day of the disaster.

An analysis by the Kansas Forest Service showed how costly a slow response can be: The report stated that, of the more than $30 million in damages from the Anderson Creek fire, 90 percent occurred during the first day.

Kansas wildfires can tear through hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day, carried by fast winds, dry grass and explosive cedar trees.

Three efforts are underway to transform how the state can respond to large wildfires.

The Kansas Forest Service is pushing a proposal to double its staff from six to 12, which would give it more capacity to guide the state response. The Department of Emergency Management is creating a plan to better coordinate the state’s 16,000 firefighters, most of whom are volunteers, with other state resources such as the National Guard.

Several politicians are seeking an audit of the state’s firefighting system, which would highlight how the state can improve and what resources might be necessary.

“What I want to see develop is an interagency, statewide coordinated wildland fire suppression system,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, who is one of the politicians leading the effort. “Whether it’s bulldozers, airplanes, Blackhawks, whatever it takes. I do know this – it takes money.”…Continue reading

March 8, 2017 “From this Kansas town, ‘it looked like the whole world was on fire’

Englewood, a town of about 80 people, is the tiniest town in one of the least populated counties in the state, Clark County, which happened to receive the brunt of the worst fire to ever hit Kansas.

It lost power, water and more than 10 percent of its houses, in addition to several of the only businesses in town, including a pheasant farm and the town’s grain weigh station.

Englewood is the sort of town that drafted Olen Whisenhunt into the role of mayor three years ago, he said.

So on Wednesday, as he surveyed the damage from the largest fire in state history, he often referred to the crumbled houses by the name of the person who used to live there. There was Jerry and his son Monty, who lived catty-corner from each other. Gone. Kenneth Bouts, whose house sits on the north side of town, a smoky heap of rubble. And Mary Cox, who lived on the outskirts of town, whose two chimneys were mostly still intact but not much else….Continue reading

April 17, 2017Volunteer firefighters: underfunded, undermanned – and first line of defense

Kansas has struggled to protect itself from massive wildfires for two years in a row.

On March 6, Englewood, a typically small, underfunded fire department, had only five trucks, two of which broke down, as more than a dozen houses in town burned to the ground.

Now, volunteer firefighters who make up 90 percent of the state’s firefighters say they need additional funding.
Kansas spends less at the state level on firefighting than almost any state, about $300,000. So when the biggest fire in the state was burning through Clark County in March, Kansas didn’t have any resources to send to help local firefighters.

Local departments are in the best position to stop these fires before they get large, said Brian Hind, who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 25 years in Greenwood County. The Starbuck fire on March 6 burned more than 450,000 acres in Kansas after burning nearly 200,000 acres in Oklahoma. Once the fire got going, “I doubt there was enough firetrucks if all the trucks in the state of Kansas would’ve gotten into it,” Hind said.
It’s up to the local departments, like the one in Greenwood County, which can respond quickly and which have the best chance at preventing wildfires from getting out of hand.

“A grassfire moves fast,” Hind said. “The biggest fire we’ve ever had was 30,000 acres, and it was a six-hour deal. So when do you pull the trigger on when the state is going to help you? You don’t have two or three days; normally, you’re talking hours.”

The ability to fight fires has become increasingly precarious, just as the fire danger in Kansas appears to be worsening.

A presentation last year at the state firefighter’s convention highlighted the two biggest risks to firefighters: heart attacks from overexertion and vehicle accidents. Many of the volunteer firefighters are not in shape and are driving equipment that easily breaks down.

The problem is that local departments don’t have the resources or manpower they need.

“You have to look at the population of the state, especially in the rural communities, the volunteer base isn’t there,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association. “So manpower is a problem. The funding isn’t there, there is less tax base. So it’s getting harder and harder for these small communities to adequately fund these departments.”….Continue reading

March 7, 2017 “Wildfires drove them away. When they returned, everything was gone.”

As wildfires approached, Mike Koehn and his wife, Myrna, evacuated their home a few miles west of Protection in Comanche County on Monday. They returned home Tuesday morning to find everything gone.

“That old wildfire came through here; it came fast and hard. There was no time to do nothing but run,” Mike Koehn said.

Firefighters were unable to help them, he said. The line of fire stretched at least 4 miles, fueled by 50-mph winds.

“It came so fast, there was just nothing, nothing to do. We was going out of the drive and the police stopped us and told us we needed to get out of here,” Mike Koehn said. “And that is just what we did. That is about the size of it. We lost the house, all of the tractors, the truck, a whole bunch of small stuff.

“It was a two-story house, and it’s all in the basement now,” Koehn said. “It’s just the way it goes. We was just in the way of something that was pretty mean.”…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.

March 24, 2017, “Kansas’ biggest fire ever was named after chief from town of 8 people

When Charlie Starbuck finally arrived at the scene of the fire, about 11:45 a.m., in northern Oklahoma, and took control of the management of what would become the largest fire in Kansas history, he didn’t hesitate to call the state for help.

The fire was already several miles long, and though the weather service said the wind was 30 to 40 miles per hour, Starbuck said he couldn’t catch up to it driving 50 or 60 miles per hour.

Drew Daily, a state firefighter who took command with Starbuck, had the Oklahoma fire chiefs in that area on speed dial, ready for something to happen. So when Starbuck described the fire, one of Daily’s colleagues called and asked for a plane to help with the firefighting.

But to send out a plane, the dispatchers needed to write down a fire name. They didn’t know much about the fire yet, so they just called it Starbuck.

That’s how the biggest fire in Kansas state history got its name from the fire chief of Slapout, Okla., a town of only eight residents but 20 volunteer firefighters.

“You can’t even call it a town,” Starbuck said. “It’s a gas station on the side of the road.”…Continue reading

March 26, 2017, “More extreme weather could mean more, bigger wildfires, scientists say

Many scientists believe there will be increasingly more days with weather that puts the state at risk of wildfires.

Although scientists can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change, the extreme weather the past two years in Kansas is consistent with climate change models, according to Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Farmers and ranchers in Kansas are already dealing with some of the effects of the air warming, according to Chuck Rice, a professor of agriculture at Kansas State University. The last frost of winter arrives on average 10 days sooner than it did 100 years ago, Rice said, and the warming is affecting the moisture levels in the soil.

“We’ve had extremely warm temperatures in January and February, combined with low precipitation, and you have more evaporation with the warmer temperatures, so that leaves conditions extremely dry,” Rice said. “One year or two years doesn’t point to the fact that it’s climate change, but it’s all consistent with what the projections are.”…Continue reading

March 26, 2017 “Firefighting resources: Will Kansas get all its trucks in a row?

For the second year in a row, Kansas was caught off guard by two fires of unprecedented size.

But although the size of the fires was unprecedented, when and where they occurred were not.

Both fires started in Oklahoma and, because of winds, crossed into Kansas.

Both fires struck in March, Kansas’ main fire season. Fire records since 2000 show that March is the most active fire season in both Kansas and Oklahoma, both in terms of number of fires and total acres burned. It’s the time when the winds are high and spring rains may not yet have arrived.

Both fires did their worst damage in southern Kansas, where tall grass or invasive cedar trees provided ample fuel along large stretches of unimpeded pasture land. There isn’t much irrigated farmland in that part of the state to slow fires down.

Some firefighters say that, because of the predictability of the danger, Kansas could request more resources during March to better support the state’s volunteer firefighters.

It’s not uncommon for states to put firefighting resources in place ahead of time when they know there is a high risk of fire, said Steve Hagen, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates federal firefighting resources for five states, including Kansas.

“They are able to move rapidly and get to where they need to be,” Hagen said. “That doesn’t mean they would get there faster than volunteer firefighters. The fire could be 50 miles away or 100 miles away. But does it save you a day? Yes.”

The resources could be especially helpful in Kansas, where the biggest risks are large grass fires that burn quickly and the response time is critical.

Both Texas and Oklahoma saw how dangerous the weather and drought conditions were and moved firefighters, trucks and planes near to where the fires eventually erupted.

But Kansas hardly has any resources to move….Continue reading

March 29, 2017, “Kansas OKs bill to share firefighting resources

March 31, 2017 “Oklahoma: How Kansas can protect itself better from wildfires

Oklahoma had to learn the hard way that Kansas fights fires unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., according to George Geissler, the director of the Oklahoma Forest Service.

Instead of reaching out to a single Kansas agency during the Anderson Creek fire last year — which burned nearly 400,000 acres near Medicine Lodge — Oklahoma had to reach out separately to each Kansas county impacted by the fire. Each county gave the fire a different name, Geissler said, and often provided “wildly different” reports about how much damage the fire had done.

So before this year’s fire season kicked off, Geissler took several of his 80 full-time staff members to meet with all five fire people at the Kansas Forest Service responsible for coordinating the state’s response to wildfires. They shared information about how each state handles wildfires.

“Kansas did not do it like any other state in the U.S., and we share this common border,” Geissler said. “I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t know enough about Kansas’ wildland fire infrastructure in order to deal with Anderson Creek.”

So this year, Oklahoma was prepared. Geissler knew to rely on his state’s information, rather than seeking additional information from Kansas. He knew that, when Oklahoma sent a plane up into the air to map the fire, it would have to map the Kansas side of the fire, too. Kansas didn’t have mapping technology that would allow Oklahoma to watch whether the fire was likely to re-enter Oklahoma, he said.

Over the past two years, Kansas has had to fight two of the largest fires in the country by acreage with some of the smallest resources of any state. Oklahoma’s total state firefighting budget is about $15 million and Kansas’ budget is only about $300,000.

Some state politicians say this has to change.

“The coordination of wildland fires is woefully lacking because of a serious lack of resources,” said state representative John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “This is all endemic: When you starve the beast of government, when you eliminate income taxes, you put the state in a financial crisis, public safety included.”

But Geissler doesn’t want Kansans to think that it would take an unreasonable infusion of resources to get up to speed.

“We have more resources, that’s not arguable, that’s real,” Geissler said. “But there is a lot that Kansas can do with just a few million dollars that would make overall state response better.”…Continue reading

March 15, 2017 “Last stand by firefighters helped prevent more damage in Hutchinson”

Fire trucks raced back as fast as they could to the last intersection north of Hutchinson on the evening of March 6.

A wildfire had already burned thousands of acres – including nine homes – and hundreds of firefighters had tried but been unable to stop it, first two miles away on Plum Street, then one mile away on Lorraine.

Now, more than 50 fire trucks formed a corner, inside the highway to the east and 56th Avenue to the south, in the hopes that they could form a wedge and prevent the fire from burning across the highway and, most importantly, any farther south.

If the fire they had been fighting for two days made it any farther south, it would erupt into a dense thicket of trees and, just a quarter mile away, the northeast side of town. There, perhaps 50 houses would burn if the fire made it 10 more blocks; hundreds more would burn if it traveled 20 more blocks.

Troy Mueller said firefighters hate to admit defeat and let houses burn. He was working with another crew to try to quickly protect four houses before they retreated. But the fire they had been fighting split in two directions, and one of his trucks disappeared from sight and radio.

“That was a very stressful 90 seconds,” said Mueller, who along with six other firefighters spoke for an hour on Wednesday about what happened during the most destructive wildfire to hit the Hutchinson area in decades.

By the time the retreat to 56th Avenue was called in, firefighters said they had only about 10 minutes to lay out a backfire to stop it….Continue reading

March 10, 2017 “When fire is heading toward your house, what do you take with you?

When Joyce Ediger finally was able to return to her house, she pulled a vase and a cast-iron pot out of the ashes. Her husband found some old spurs that had once hung on the back door.

“It was just so shocking, it was like a war zone,” Ediger said. “We could see some of the appliances melted and turned over, but nothing else.”

The Ediger family probably lost more than anyone to fire in Englewood, the tiny town that suffered more damage per person than any other in the biggest fire in Kansas, which burned more than 700,000 acres.

The Edigers were driving back from Dodge City on Monday when one of their children called and said they might have to evacuate. They arrived home after 2 p.m. and packed up the trailer with their horses. Then Joyce’s husband, Jerry, went back in to grab his guns and ammunition, so it wouldn’t explode on any firefighters…Continue reading

March 10, 2017 “Everywhere was burning, so he had to become his own firefighter

Wildfires aren’t that unusual, according to Bill Barby, 63, who has spent his whole life working on his 3,700-acre ranch that spreads across Clark and Comanche counties.

About every 10 years a wildfire will spring up on the ranch. But in the past, volunteer firefighters would rush in from neighboring towns and counties.

Not this time, as about 712,000 acres were set aflame across the state. Separate fires caused evacuations as far north as Wilson, 130 miles away, and 140 miles to the east near Hutchinson.

And in Clark County, the largest fire, which had roared in from Oklahoma, to the west, took a turn on Monday night to the southeast and barreled down toward Barby’s ranch near the Oklahoma border.

The changing winds had turned this already massive fire into long fingers of fire, one of which burned off the eastern edge of his ranch in Comanche County.

This time he was alone. He took a truck with just 60 gallons of water on the back and headed out the headquarters of the ranch, where the barns and equipment were….Continue reading

March 7, 2017 “Update 4 p.m.: 1 dead, 400,000 acres burned in unprecedented wildfires

Wildfires in multiple counties continued to burn across Kansas on Tuesday, killing one person and countless livestock, damaging structures, closing roads and forcing thousands of evacuations in an emergency one fire official called “unprecedented.”

“We’ve had bad fires and we’ve had really bad fires but never multiples at once like this,” said Eric Ward, a fire specialist with the Kansas Forest Service….Continue reading

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