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Why those battling historic fires had no help until it was too late

Drone video captures wildfire-ravaged Kansas landscape

A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)
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A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)

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.

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“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.”

We left them boys to fend for themselves.

Dave Redger, Ashland’s volunteer fire chief

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.

A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)

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.”

Limited resources

About 90 percent of the state’s fire departments are staffed by volunteers, often relying on old or second-hand equipment. That’s not unusual — 87 percent of the nation’s fire departments are largely volunteer.

What sets Kansas apart is the lack of a state resources available to support its volunteers. The Kansas Forest Service budget for 2016 was about $3 million, while the Oklahoma Forestry Service budget was about $87 million.

So as fires overwhelmed the volunteer firefighters, the state of Kansas had almost no backup resources to help.

Out of 50 states, we are the smallest and lowest funded in the country.

Eric Ward, Kansas Forest Service

“Out of 50 states, we are the smallest and lowest funded in the country, which at a time like this is not helpful,” Eric Ward said on March 7 as he led a fire command center in Dodge City. “The state of Kansas puts less money into this than any other state in the country. That does limit our ability to be as effective at these things as we’d like to be.”

The Kansas Forest Service has three trucks and four employees dedicated to firefighting and fire prevention, while Oklahoma operates 47 fire engines and 47 bulldozers, according to Drew Daily, who led Oklahoma’s effort to fight the Starbuck fire – the one that roared across the state line into Kansas.

Oklahoma can also call up other state employees, who are trained as firefighters but who normally work on the state’s wildlands, Daily said. They have management and logistical support teams, in addition to planes and helicopters.

Greg Goodnight lost 14,500 of the 14,800 acres of grassland on his ranch, forcing him to sell his cattle that survived the fires that swept through Clark County. He discusses what it will mean for the ranch to have to sell the cattle early. (Video

Larry Biles, the director of the Kansas Forest Service, knew that Oklahoma was preparing for a massive fire in the week prior to March 6.

“(Oklahoma and Texas fire officials) were telling us, ‘We are going to preposition a lot of our firefighters to the panhandles of our state; we are pretty sure something catastrophic could occur. We don’t want to wait until it occurs to move people 300 to 400 miles,’ ” Biles said. “They have staff and equipment that Kansas doesn’t have.”

On March 6, when the fire started, Oklahoma had a plane in the air by 3 p.m. to help firefighters. It would be two more days before Kansas would get a rented plane to help in Clark County, at which point most of the damage had been done.

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Still, the Kansas Forest Service prepared for the fire with the resources it had.

Drawing on lessons learned from last year’s Anderson Creek Fire, the state notified its National Guard helicopters to be on alert. That allowed it to put two Blackhawk helicopters on the Hutchinson fire sooner than it could last year.

The Forest Service positioned two employees at the emergency management headquarters in Topeka. As the Oklahoma fire crossed into Kansas, the service requested federal help.

The state asked for an additional 25 fire engines, five strike teams, two planes, water trucks and a team to help manage the fires. But most of these resources didn’t arrive until the afternoon of March 7, a day after they were requested and after the most dangerous and damaging fire had passed.

Too many disasters

Lack of resources was only part of the problem on March 6. There were just too many disasters.

At the same time a dozen major fires were burning in Kansas, the threat of tornadoes prevented many counties from sending resources, said Devan Tucking, the deputy state emergency operations center manager.

“Counties didn’t want to release assets because they wanted to defend their own counties,” Tucking said. “I called many, many counties but with incoming severe weather, which came to fruition, it was very hard to make the decision to leave their county to support another county.”

The state focused its resources on the fire in Hutchinson on March 6, a much smaller fire by acreage, but closer to a large population center.

At its peak, Hutchinson had more than 550 people and 277 pieces of equipment working to suppress a fire that eventually burned about 7,000 acres. And even with all of those additional resources, the weather conditions were so bad that the Hutchinson fire, which they thought they had been contained, escaped in the afternoon of March 6 and threatened to burn back toward town.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management had been monitoring the fire and mobilized additional resources from as far away as Kansas City. When firefighters took a stand, more than 50 trucks lined a four-mile stretch of highway to prevent the fire from moving farther south into town.

More than 2,100 individuals worked on the Hutchinson fire over the course of the week.

Rural Kansas was left to fend for itself. Help arrived after the worst damage was done.

Englewood

Firefighters started working around noon March 6 in Clark County. Less than 24 hours later, 85 percent of the county had burned.

Bernie Smith, the volunteer fire chief in Englewood, was away from home, moving cattle, but sent his two sons back to start fighting the fire.

Smith joined the five Englewood firetrucks, which had been fighting fires outside town, when he decided they needed to return home. But they couldn’t: The fire had jumped Highway 34, blocking their route.

The town of Englewood, population of about 80, probably suffered the most damage per capita of any town in Kansas in the largest wildfire to ever burn across the state. (March 8, 2017)

They retreated to a wheat field, where they would be protected for 20 minutes until the fire passed. “All we could do is sit there and wait until it got through us because it was terrible hot, the wind was blowing 50 to 60 miles per hour, you couldn’t see to the end of the hood of the pickup,” he said.

Ashland’s fire department helped for awhile and then had to leave. Comanche County also sent help, but within a few hours the fire had spread east to Comanche. “We came home to our own mess,” said Greg Ellis, the fire chief of Comanche County.

Smith tried to get in touch with other fire departments but all they could do was apologize. “They couldn’t come and help, they were doing what they had to do,” Smith said. “We all had our own fire.”

So as the fire tore through the eastern part of Englewood, Smith’s volunteers did the best they could. “We got several calls for fire trucks, and we just didn’t have the trucks,” Smith said.

An Englewood firefighter’s eyes became so swollen with heat and smoke that Smith had to send him home.

Another firefighter, who had spent hours on the back of the truck, finally told Smith he was too exhausted and couldn’t hold the hose any longer.

The smoke was so thick that one truck crashed into wires supporting a power line pole. The water pump on one fire truck broke, and the clutch on a second truck failed, so they only had three working trucks left.

The power lines had burned down so they didn’t have electricity to pump water to refill the trucks’ water tanks. An oil company in Oklahoma called Smith and offered two truckloads of water. Smith had to call back twice to reroute the truck after it ran into fires on the way into town.

At 6 a.m. March 7, after 16 hours of fighting the fire, Smith sent everyone home for two hours of rest. He had not eaten anything but a Butterfinger for breakfast the previous day.

“We had never lost a house, and we lost about 14 or 15 that first day,” Smith said. “So even the guys who went home to sleep couldn’t sleep.”

Everybody did a heck of a job. We were just spread out too far, but I’ve never been prouder to be a firefighter.

Bernie Smith, volunteer fire chief in Englewood

Smith wanted to sleep, too, but he needed to see what had happened to his cows: About 250 lay scattered around land he leased. “It’s devastating, but it is what it is,” Smith said. “Everybody did a heck of a job. We were just spread out too far, but I’ve never been prouder to be a firefighter.”

It was ordinary people, not the national or state government, that stood with the people of Englewood that day, Smith said.

Anyone that doubts the American people, needed to be here. America is alive and well.

Bernie Smith, volunteer fire chief in Englewood

“These people that help us, the farmers, the water haulers, all that money comes out of their pocket,” Smith said. “It’s not the government, it’s individuals like you and me that own these companies and own these ranches. It’s people helping people. Anyone that doubts the American people, needed to be here. America is alive and well.”

Fires everywhere

Similar scenes played out in dozens of volunteer fire departments.

Firefighters from Harper County helped fight the fire in Hutchinson on Sunday, then on Monday helped fight a fire at a cotton gin in Pratt County before returning home to find a fire near Medicine Lodge, during which they were called to help at a fourth fire in Comanche County. “It’s just been a real blast,” said Roger Robison, a Harper County fire chief, wryly.

Many of the fire departments that came to help fight a fire in Rooks County had to leave to fight their own fires, said Butch Post, the emergency management coordinator. “It was basically headed for the city of Stockton, so we had to evacuate the prison,” Post said.

The prison transported 140 prisoners from the Stockton Correctional Facility on buses to sleep in a gymnasium inside the Norton prison.

About a third of the residents in Wilson evacuated after a fire that started in Russell County and jumped Highway 70, according to Larry Langerman, the fire chief in Wilson. Although it wasn’t one of the biggest fires in the state that day, it was the biggest fire Wilson had ever faced, Langerman said.

“It was nothing but flames and smoke, very heavy smoke,” Langerman said. “There were times you could hardly see in front of the truck, between the smoke and the dust.”

Wilson, like the town of Ashland in Clark County, was saved in large part because the head of the fire hit farmland with green fields that acted as fire breaks.

“We got lucky,” Langerman said.

Minneola, the first town directly north of Englewood, was paged to come help in Englewood, but a separate fire broke out near Minneola before they had even left the fire station for the first fire.

When the 11 Minneola firefighters arrived to their own fire, it was already out of control. “Immediately, we started requesting to see if there were outside resources to come and help. But at that time there were no outside resources that could come and help: Everyone in their counties was out there assisting someone else,” said John Hunter, a Minneola firefighter.

Clark County declared an emergency on the afternoon of Monday, March 6, according to Millie Fudge, the emergency management coordinator. But for the first six hours of the fire, the county had the help of a single fire truck from Bloom, an unincorporated community of fewer than 100 people. And by midnight, barely a dozen crews had arrived to help fight a fire that burned 85 percent of the county.

About 85 percent of Clark County burned, including nearly 40 houses.

By the afternoon of the following day, 25 federal fire crews the state had ordered started to arrive from Colorado. By that Wednesday two planes were helping suppress the fire and giving Clark County firefighters a rest.

Eventually Clark County had more than 100 people helping to put out the remaining fires.

“They helped out tremendously, but by that time the bigger parts of the active fire were done,” Hunter said.

About 85 percent of Clark County burned, including nearly 40 houses, more than 100 outlying structures and tens of millions of dollars in fencing and cattle.

“I’m not saying we would’ve saved all the structures, but I think we could’ve saved a lot more stuff if we would’ve had the resources,” Hunter said.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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