'Heroic' effort saves millions in property, Hutchinson fire chief says
Hutchinson Fire Chief Steven Beer called efforts he witnessed on Monday by firefighters working to save homes in rural Reno County “heroic,” noting “I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I saw stuff I haven’t seen in my entire career.”
The result, he said, was that they brought two major wildfires under control with damage to only one home.
The efforts of nearly 160 firefighters from five counties resulted in saving more than an estimated $17.2 million worth of property.
The battle continues, however, with both fires only 50% contained late Tuesday morning.
That's because numerous tree rows continued to burn and will take a concentrated effort for several more days to prevent fires from erupting again and threatening more homes.
“There are numerous hot spots in heavy timber that continue to burn,” Beer said. “With the warmth, winds, and low humidity ... it will allow fires to continue to burn into the weekend.”
They have requested the assistance of Black Hawk helicopters to dump water on timber that continues to burn, but the helicopters are unable to fly unless winds drop below a certain level.
“It may happen this afternoon, or it may not,” Beer said Tuesday morning.
Fire damage by the numbers
The first fire, which was first called in about 2 p.m. at Fourth and Buhler Road but turned out to be further west, has been dubbed the Beer fire.
Before it was stopped, it burned portions of three mile sections from Fourth north to just beyond 43rd Avenue.
Forty-six fire units and 90 firefighting personnel, as well as 18 law enforcement officers and two bulldozer operators, concentrated on this fire. An air tanker also dumped some 20 loads on the fire.
“We had zero homes lost and zero outbuildings,” Beer said. “The area contained 87 residences and 15 outbuildings.”
Besides 12 units from Hutchinson, firefighters with the Harvey and Sedgwick County fire task forces were on the scene Tuesday.
The second fire, dubbed the Ice fire by fire officials who were up at 2 a.m. mapping them, Beer explained, involved some 300 acres from 95th Avenue north just into McPherson County, from Plum Street to the east about a half-mile. The fire burned only about 10 acres in McPherson County, the chief said.
“We had 33 fire units respond to that fire, with 68 personnel it took to mitigate that,” Beer said. “We had seven law enforcement on the effort and one bulldozer operator.”
On the one home damaged in the 10000 block of North Plum, the heat melted window trim, but firefighters otherwise saved 39 homes and 11 outbuildings with an estimated value of $5.3 million.
All the roads in the affected areas but one have reopened, said Reno County Sheriff Darrian Campbell, though officials encourage the public to stay out of the area and not go gawking because of the amount of emergency traffic that remains there.
A segment of 108th Avenue from Plum east remains closed because of the number of trees that have fallen into the road and need to be cleared, he said.
What were the challenges to fighting the fires?
A part of the challenge, Beer said, is that a number of the homes in the area are considered “indefensible” because cedar trees line long, thin driveways – some a half-mile long – that provide the access to the home.
“That nestles the home in a nice landscape, but when winds are coming through at 50 mph, the conditions we face, nothing can describe it in a good way unless you’ve been in a firestorm. That’s the best way to describe it. The heat is intense and the smoke so thick you can’t see. Basically, we’re putting people on a suicide mission. You only have 1,000 gallons of water and flames are flying 70 feet in the air. We do not push our people into places that are not defensible.”
Still, despite those conditions, firefighters often found ways in, Beer said, including walking in with “drip cans” used to set backfires. Those were some of the heroic efforts he referenced.
“I saw one individual cut a fence and drive his truck right up to a cedar tree throwing flames 40 to 50 feet in the air,” Beer said. “He came in real aggressive. The fire was heading toward a home and he knew if he didn’t knock that out there, it would be a lost home. He made a split-second decision, dove in and hit it hard, and contained the area for others to come in.”
“I’ve seen people running with drip torches, flames licking their heels, to save property,” Beer said. “When you’re in zero visibility and the sand is blowing in your eyes, you can’t see. My eyes, I can still hardly see yet. Those are the conditions the general public doesn’t understand our men and women do. I can’t overemphasize having great partners like that.”
There’s a lot that property owners can do to make their homes more defensible and assist fire officials in protecting property. The city has check forms a homeowner can use to score their property and figure out ways to mitigate the danger.
The Kansas Forestry Service is also willing to work with firefighters and homeowners in assessments and advice.
Besides the work they’ve done over the last two years working with property owners to mitigate the danger, they’ve also improved their equipment and training specifically to address wildland fires, Beer said.
“We were talking with the Forestry Department about the fire at 95th and Plum, and they said five or six years ago, the outcome would have been different here,” Beer said.
That’s due, in part, to mitigation work done by the fire department the past two years, to burn off 10 miles of roadside ditches to create a larger barrier and prevent fire from jumping across the road, as well as focusing on equipment that can respond in the sandhills.
“You need the right tools to do the job,” Beer said.
'Team approach' critical to firefighters' success
Also important to their success, Beer said, was “a team approach.” Besides a coordinated effort of the many fire agencies who responded, they had bulldozer operators from the city and county creating firebreaks and air support.
“It’s a tribute not just to Hutch, but a tribute to the other fire departments and sheriff’s office. Even the city and county bulldozers.”
The advanced technology now used includes GPS in trucks that allow them to know the terrain before they go in. It also helps track all of the people on the ground.
“We need to see everyone who's working shoulder to shoulder to make decisions,” he said. “That’s what makes us a unified command. If you think you know everything and are going to go do what you think, even me as chief, you’re only kidding yourself. I rely on the sheriff and forestry and all of us standing together and making joint decisions.”
Beer said he and Chief Doug Hanen were in his office, anticipating fires because of the high fire danger, when the first call came in.
“When we ran out the door, we could see the column of smoke,” Beer said. “Chief Hanen immediately called for resources. By the time we got out there at 75 mph, we were the first two units on the scene, it (the fire) went all the way from Fourth Street to 100 yards south of 17th. That was in 3 minutes. That’s how far and fast it was traveling. We tried to get ahead of it, to cut it off. We did get a couple of units down there to put down a wet line, but we sent other units to 17th and Willison to do a back burn and lay down a very line. It was very hectic.”
They did lose one battle, Beer said, when the fire jumped 30th Avenue, where they initially thought they had it stopped. An ember from a cedar blew a quarter-mile north, and the fire was off again, he said.
But they did stop it at 43rd.
“We won that war, but there’s still a ways to go,” Beer said. “We’re not out of it yet. We still have crews working the line. We hope to have 100% of it contained by next Monday.”
On every “red flag day,” Beer said, with the shift change at 7 a.m. they began planning for the day.
“Anytime we’re at catastrophic conditions or high fire danger, my command staff and battalion chiefs meet in my office. We make a game plan for the entire day,” he said. “We know what we’re going to do, depending on the conditions, and it pays off. We even know what apparatus will be dispatched, and every brush truck in the city of Hutchinson responds to the scene. Our goal is to contain it to 200 acres. Most of the time that’s done. But when you’re dealing with 20% humidity and 50 mph winds, it’s not going to happen.”