State

Firefighting resources: Will Kansas get all its trucks in a row?

A crop duster drops water on a wildfire along K-61 just north of Hutchinson. An “after action” report will look critically at what lessons can be learned from the recent wildfires and possibly make determinations about what resources to have on call during high-risk periods.
A crop duster drops water on a wildfire along K-61 just north of Hutchinson. An “after action” report will look critically at what lessons can be learned from the recent wildfires and possibly make determinations about what resources to have on call during high-risk periods. File photo

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.

Legislation delayed

For two years, the Kansas Legislature has considered a law that would allow the state to coordinate firefighting efforts with Oklahoma.

Last year, the proposed law was delayed after a snowstorm struck on the day it was supposed to receive a hearing, and it was never rescheduled. This year, House Bill 2140 passed the House but, while the fire struck, was awaiting a hearing in the state Senate on March 14, the middle of the state’s fire season. (The bill is still awaiting a final vote in the Senate.)

So Kansas had to use the federal system to call in additional resources, which was slower and potentially more costly than working directly with Oklahoma, according to Jason Hartman, a fire prevention specialist with the Kansas Forest Service, who made the call for the additional resources.

Without the law, Kansas and Oklahoma didn’t have the legal authority to work together on the two biggest fires in state history that straddled their borders. A spokesperson for Oklahoma’s incident management team said they had not been in regular contact with Kansas and didn’t know how to reach them.

In addition to planes and additional fire engines, Oklahoma has more fire experts to help manage the fires. Many of the biggest problems in large fires are logistical: learning where the most critical fires are and then shifting the resources to the most important areas.

Kansas paid to bring in a national fire management team for the first time this year, but it didn’t arrive until after the worst damage had been done.

Although Oklahoma’s direct resources were limited by the three large fires it was fighting, it had a fire management team in place days sooner than Kansas did.

In addition to shared state resources, federal resources could be brought in during March, a downtime for fire risks outside of Oklahoma and Kansas.

“Instead of having an air-tanker pre-positioned in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when they are not in active fire season, why not have it pre-positioned somewhere in Kansas?” said Troy Mueller, a Hutchinson firefighter who fights forest fires across the U.S.

The state would likely have to pay for these resources to be on hand. But the biggest costs, such as putting planes in the air, would be incurred only if another fire struck.

Several state fire officials said it could be at least a month before they start to identify how to prepare for future fire disasters, and it isn’t yet clear whether more resources will be the answer.

The state will prepare an “after action” report, which will look critically at what lessons can be learned from the March 6 fire.

“Many of those fires that became very large fires, the call didn’t come until later in the day when we couldn’t have had aerial assets up,” said Devan Tucking, the deputy state emergency operations center manager. “But the ‘after action’ process will identify if we want to proceed in that manner and who would be responsible for that task, if that’s something we wanted to pursue.”

People donated thousands of tons of hay to Kansas fire victims from many states. Editor's note: Brad Zollinger's name is misspelled in the video. (video by Michael Pearce)

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)

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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