MANHATTAN, Kan. — Fires sped across Kansas last week, killing anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 head of cattle, as well as wildlife, and forcing road closures and community evacuations. More than 700,000 acres have burned in 21 counties.
An Oklahoma truck driver died March 6 in Clark County because of smoke inhalation, and red-flag warnings for high winds remained through much of the week. Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of disaster emergency to expedite emergency response assistance to affected counties and the Kansas Division of Emergency Management coordinated state response operations from a round-the-clock operations center in Topeka.
State Forester Larry Biles on March 7 welcomed the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team to Hutchinson, which was called into Kansas to assist with firefighting efforts. That crew is a type 2 interagency Incident Management Team that when called, comes together to manage all-hazard emergency incidents. The team comprises fire and emergency professionals from state, local and federal land management and emergency agencies.
All Kansas Forest Service fire staff members, as well as temporary fire personnel, were engaged in the multiple fires around the state, assisting with incident management teams in Clark, Ford and Reno county areas as well as coordinating air and ground strike teams.
Key fire-control personnel were dispersed across the areas of need: Fire Planning Specialist Eric Ward was in Dodge City; Fire Training Specialist Rodney Redinger in Hutchinson; Fire Program Coordinator Ross Hauck in Ashland; and Fire Protection Specialist Jason Hartman assisted at the State Emergency Operations Center in Topeka.
Kansas Forest Service District 8 Forester, John Klempa acted as a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) manager, which involved being the ground contact for making sure that the SEATs had what they needed logistically and could operate safely, and he coordinated activity between the pilots and the incident command structure. SEATs carry up to 800 gallons of water to the fire quickly and drop it on the fire line, or ahead of the fire line in a protective manner. Their drop altitude and approach is similar to an agriculture “crop duster” type aircraft.
Kansas Forest Service district 6 forester, Dennis Carlson, served as engine boss, in charge of KFS wildland fire engine 62 apparatus and crew, similar to a municipal fire department captain. He received assignments from the command structure and was responsible for deciding how best to accomplish those tasks safely and efficiently. In this capacity, the engine boss is at times directly on the fire line supervising his crew of firefighters to attack the fire and protect structures.
Numerous Kansas Forest Service full-time and temporary employees filled roles ranging from finance to meteorology, mapping, as well as physical firefighting efforts. In addition to state staff and outstate crews, a large number of Kansas’ volunteer and paid fire departments from all across the state deployed personnel and equipment to the fires. Moreover, throughout the impacted areas, community groups were front and center with plentiful food and drink.
“To all who spent time working the fire or supporting fire fighters and administrators please know your engagement is sincerely appreciated,” state forester Biles said. “The hours you spent on the line and in the command centers making split-second decisions regarding lives and property at the cost of time with your own family is duly noted and truly appreciated. May we not experience a repeat of 2016 and 2017 anytime soon.”