Several Kansans on the front lines battling wildfires in West

Each summer, around 25 Kansans travel to Western states and help fight wildfires, Rodney Redinger says.

Redinger is a Kansas Forest Service training specialist who teaches firefighters how to handle wildfires. Now he is among about 10 Kansans dueling two Colorado fires. Redinger, 34, is an incident commander fighting a fire in the Pueblo, Colo., area.

Each year, hundreds of Kansans train to battle wildfires, but only a few leave the state to do it, said Redinger, who lives in the Harvey County town of Burrton, east of Hutchinson.

It’s not just a potentially dangerous job. It’s grueling work, a long way from home.

In Colorado, the labor at lower elevations involves dealing with a mix of grass and brush; at higher elevations, it’s pine trees.

The day usually starts around 5:30 a.m. The crews use chainsaws to clear an area about 20 feet wide in a continuous line along the fire to remove fuel that can feed the flames. Within the 20-foot belt, they cut firebreaks by clearing brush down to the dirt. Each path is about 18 inches wide. It’s enough to stop a small fire or slow a large one. And they do it for 16 hours a day, in heat and smoke, wearing protective but lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts, helmets, leather boots and gloves. They carry water and food – often meals ready to eat – in backpacks weighing 20 to 40 pounds, depending on how much they have to carry with them. It’s not uncommon for a crew member to drink 2 gallons of water per 16-hour shift.

(Compensation comes from a complicated mix of local, state and federal funds, Redinger said.)

As the crews toil, aircraft drop water and retardant.

Firefighters establish lookouts and communicate by two-way radios about the location of safety zones, about tactics, about everything, Redinger said.

“You rely on teamwork,” he said.

They need one another because they’re dealing with unforgiving nature and its unpredictable ways. A wind can suddenly shift, causing a fire to roar in a different direction.

A blaze in dry timber can rage 100 yards in 10 seconds, or faster than it takes an NFL kickoff returner to sprint untouched from one goal line to the other. Superheated gases churn ahead of the flames. According to a document by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, wildfire flames can range from a few feet to more than 200 feet high – as tall as a water tower.

In Kansas, wildfires tend to kick up more in the spring, when the grass is dry and the winds are furious, and the typical Kansas wildfire is smaller and easier to get to than blazes in the West, Redinger said.

The goal, he said, is to try to predict the fire’s movement so crews don’t have to run for safety at the last minute. The strategy is to keep a buffer.

Each crew member carries what looks like a tin-foil tent, called a fire shelter. As a last resort, a crew member can lie down and put a tent over himself as protection from the flames. But the protection doesn’t always work.

On Sunday night, after the crews in Colorado learned of 19 firefighters killed by an Arizona wildfire, Redinger said, the leaders directed everyone to call home and touch base with their families.

As for the tragedy in Arizona, Redinger said, “There’s no words to describe it. It’s a sobering day to be a firefighter.”

For the families and friends of the lost firefighters, and for all the people who have had to respond to the incident, he said, “they’re going to need a lot of prayers.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle