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Last stand by firefighters helped prevent more damage in Hutchinson

A crop duster drops water on a wildfire just north of Hutchinson last week. Firefighters talked Wednesday about the difficulty of fighting last week’s wildfires.
A crop duster drops water on a wildfire just north of Hutchinson last week. Firefighters talked Wednesday about the difficulty of fighting last week’s wildfires. The Wichita Eagle

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.

Local crop dusters and military helicopters worked in unison all day Tuesday fighting wildfires north of Hutchinson. (Video by Travis Heying / The Wichita Eagle)

It feels counter-intuitive to light more fires rather than go put water on fires, said David Goering, another Hutchinson firefighter. But they have been trained well, he said, and didn’t hesitate to get it started.

The biggest backfire they had ever set was about a half-mile long; this one would need to be four miles long. Plus, it was drier and windier than they would have liked, which risked igniting more fires.

“But we were running out of options,” said Craig Rother, one of the firefighters on the line.

Instead of using two torches like they normally do, they had four firefighters walking with torches, two moving in each direction, throwing fire 100 feet from the edge of the road to a nearby fence. The 50 firetrucks followed along, putting out any embers that blew back at them into the wind.

The backfire burned slowly in the grass, against the wind, as the head fire was pushed by the wind through trees at 20 miles per hour in their direction. They needed the backfire to create enough black scorched earth that the fire wouldn’t have enough plants to burn for any of its embers to jump the road again.

As one torch ran out of fuel, another torch was handed to them.

And then about 600 feet away from the road, the two fires collided.

The fire, which had already burned more than 6,000 acres, didn’t have enough fuel to make it past the 600 feet of black grass they had burned.

There was still a lot of work ahead; Rothe said he would continue to work 36-hour shifts for the next eight days.

But that night they had saved the town.

Barely.

Local crop dusters and military helicopters worked in unison all day Tuesday fighting wildfires north of Hutchinson. (Video by Travis Heying / The Wichita Eagle)

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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