State

Damage from historic wildfires more than $80 million

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)

Back-to-back years of the worst wildfires in state history could end up costing as much as $100 million.

Damage exceeded $80 million, according to reports by the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service. The roughly $50 million from this year alone includes the cost of 3,700 miles of burned fences and 4,000 to 8,000 dead cattle.

Rancher Greg Gardiner tours parts of his family's 48,000-acre ranch, nearly all of which was burned when fire swept through most of Clark and Comanche counties in early March. There are days, he said, when the thought of all that needs to be done

It doesn’t include the loss of 40 homes and more than 100 additional structures, such as barns and garages. Nor does it include the cost of replacing burned power lines, the more than $3 million spent on firefighting or the thousands of hours of lost wages from volunteer firefighters across the state.

As the scale of the economic losses have become more apparent, so have problems in the state’s firefighting response.

Local fire departments often found themselves asking for help on Facebook because there wasn’t an effective statewide system.

The areas that suffered the most damage in Clark County this year had almost no firefighting help during the first day of the disaster.

An analysis by the Kansas Forest Service showed how costly a slow response can be: The report stated that, of the more than $30 million in damages from the Anderson Creek fire, 90 percent occurred during the first day.

Kansas wildfires can tear through hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day, carried by fast winds, dry grass and explosive cedar trees.

Three efforts are underway to transform how the state can respond to large wildfires.

The Kansas Forest Service is pushing a proposal to double its staff from six to 12, which would give it more capacity to guide the state response. The Department of Emergency Management is creating a plan to better coordinate the state’s 16,000 firefighters, most of whom are volunteers, with other state resources such as the National Guard.

Several politicians are seeking an audit of the state’s firefighting system, which would highlight how the state can improve and what resources might be necessary.

“What I want to see develop is an interagency, statewide coordinated wildland fire suppression system,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, who is one of the politicians leading the effort. “Whether it’s bulldozers, airplanes, Blackhawks, whatever it takes. I do know this – it takes money.”

Planes

One of the best hopes for a quick response would be getting planes in the air, according to Jason Hartman, one of four full-time staff dedicated to wildfires at the Kansas Forest Service.

The planes can dump more water than a firetruck, dump it faster and over more difficult terrain.

That’s why the Forest Service has proposed adding a full-time position, which would be dedicated to identifying and coordinating the state’s aerial response.

In total, the Forest Service has proposed doubling its wildfire and mechanics staff from six to 12 people – with four of those new employees in place before the next fire season hits in March.

The Forest Service wants to hire three additional staff who would be spread out across the state. During the year, they would work on fire prevention and build relationships with local fire chiefs so when the next big fire hits, they would know whom to call and what resources they could offer.

Many rural volunteer fire departments, which form the backbone of the Kansas system, say they need better equipment. But right now when local fire departments ask the Forest Service for help buying trucks, they are told the wait is between one and three years. The fastest way to reduce the backlog would be to add a third mechanic to help convert old military trucks, according to Ross Hauck, who runs the program for the Forest Service.

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

In a few more years, the Forest Service hopes to add two positions – a fire ecologist and a fuels technician, who would help towns prepare for wildfires. Many homes are too close to tall grass and trees, towns don’t have fire breaks that would slow a fire, and many ranchers haven’t thought about where they can graze their cattle when fire risks are high.

Right now the Forest Service spends about $300,000 on wildfire salaries, which all comes from the federal government. The proposed new positions would more than double those costs.

The Forest Service’s advisory board, made up of state political and business leaders, is encouraging the Forest Service to take its request to Kansas State University leaders, who have oversight over the Forest Service.

“It’s not a question of if more of these wildfires will occur, it’s a question of when,” said Brad Loveless, a board member from Westar Energy. “Like any insurance policy, it’s a matter of making prudent preparations to minimize the cost to people and property.”

Drone footage shows burned fields and a burned out barn and garage near Ashland, Kansas. After the fires swept through, winds started stripping away the topsoil, creating dust storms. (Courtesy video)

Coordination

State fire officials admit the system for coordinating firefighting resources has been lacking for years. The Kansas Department of Emergency Management has assigned two committees to recommend how to fix the problem.

In the first 12 to 24 hours, nobody knew which firefighters had responded to the 2007 Greensburg tornado, the 2007 massive floods in southeast Kansas or the 2016 Anderson Creek fire, according to Karl McNorton, who chairs one of the two committees.

“The sad part about it is we knew there was a problem when Anderson Creek fire happened,” McNorton said. “At that point, nothing changed, nobody wanted to do anything about it.”

Local fire departments have been able to coordinate with nearby departments to fight small and medium wildfires, but the past two major disasters exposed a lack of coordinated statewide response.

Instead, local fire departments sent out text messages and posted on Facebook seeking help.

“That’s one way of asking for help, but the problem with that is they’re not sure who is coming, how many trucks or how many people are coming,” said Doug Jorgensen, the state fire marshal.

Some firefighters who responded this year were turned away, McNorton said, which he worries will make them hesitant to respond in the future. Other departments deployed themselves without checking in, which made it harder to safely coordinate helicopter or plane drops.

Other departments wasted time without an assignment, he said, or worked too many hours to be safe. A coordinated response would create a 48- to 72-hour plan for department help, slotting them into three 12-hour shifts.

McNorton said the departments in his county had additional resources they could have sent to help in other parts of the state but didn’t know where to go for a couple of days.

“We kept hearing about all the other big fires throughout the rest of the state,” he said. “It was like ‘Where do you want people? Where you gonna want people, and how soon can we get there to do any good?’ ”

He and other local chiefs sent help to Reno County, but the people and equipment were sent back in less than 24 hours. And by the time they had resources on the road to help in Clark County, they were told the county no longer needed help.

“Essentially the state fire marshal is tasked with this,” McNorton said. “But if he doesn’t have the tools, which right now nobody does, it makes it difficult to gather the resources and get them deployed somewhere.”

The state fire chiefs have been using a different software system than the state emergency managers, which has made coordinating resources slow and ineffective. The committees have tentatively decided on a single system, but that still leaves the huge administrative task of updating the credentials of around 16,000 firefighters from nearly 500 fire departments.

“The database is only as good as the information that’s in it,” Jorgensen said. “If you don’t have a majority of departments in there, it’s not going to be much use when large events happen.”

Public health, public money

A group of state politicians, including Carmichael, want the state to audit the state’s firefighting system. An audit would show deficiencies in the current system and provide rigorous, nonpartisan information to legislators, Carmichael said.

“It’s apparent to everyone there needs to be better coordination and more resources, particularly as we see the climate change,” he said. “These fires are becoming more frequent, more intense, endangering more lives and property.”

The audit would show not just the financial benefits but also public health benefits. During this year’s fire, a trucker lost his life trying to drive away. Firefighters and ranchers reported a number of close calls, including waiting out fires that jumped over their trucks. Six ranchers in Oklahoma and Texas died during the same fires this year while trying to move cattle.

The past two years of fires have burned up to the very edge of several small towns that were supposed to have been evacuated but were not. Although tiny towns with fewer than 100 residents, like Englewood and Sun City, were successfully evacuated, more than 90 percent of residents in larger towns, like the 2,000 residents of Medicine Lodge in 2016, didn’t abide by local evacuation orders.

State and local agencies are experts at warning residents to go to their basements during tornadoes, but local jurisdictions that are in charge of evacuations have struggled to get people into their cars to drive away from wildfires.

Jorgensen, the state fire marshal, said he didn’t know of a single information source everyone could go to during an emergency to find out whether to evacuate, let alone an active system of texting people. Evacuations in Englewood and Sun City succeeded because local officials went door-to-door telling people to leave.

If the state were operating in normal fiscal times, Kansas State University might approve the Forest Service’s plan to expand directly, according to Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway. But the state’s ability to respond to wildfires, like many other areas, has been hamstrung by budget cuts.

“An ounce of prevention will reap a pound of monetary cure,” she said.

If the Legislative Post Audit Committee approves the request for an audit in July and the report is finished by the end of the year, Rooker thinks the Legislature could find funding in 2018.

“I think if we have the data to back up the request, I am optimistic that this will be a request given some level of priority,” she said.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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