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Fire has lessons for officials in Kansas, Oklahoma

Where It All Began: The Anderson Creek Fire

A rancher show the devastation wrought by the massive 2016 wildfire. Hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched in south-central Kansas. (by Oliver Morrison)
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A rancher show the devastation wrought by the massive 2016 wildfire. Hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched in south-central Kansas. (by Oliver Morrison)

Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters piloted and crewed by Kansas Army National Guard Soldiers joined the Anderson Creek wildfire fight on March 26. The helicopters arrived in Medicine Lodge on March 26 and dropped approximately 124 buckets of water,

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.

Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters piloted and crewed by soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment (two from Army Aviation Support Facility #2 in Salina and two from Army Aviation Support Facility #1 in Topeka), Kansas Army National

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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