Firefighters work together in blazing battle

Photo by Donnie Schierling
Photo by Donnie Schierling

By Patricia Middleton
McPherson Sentinel – March 13, 2017


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A series of fires have ravaged at least 6,300 acres of land in Reno and Rice counties since March 3, causing destruction and damage to homes and property.


"We're sorry for the plight of our neighbors," said McPherson Mayor Tom Brown. "But we're happy we could provide some help."


Fire departments from McPherson County responded, providing fire suppression and command staff to aid and relieve Reno and Rice county firefighters.


"On Friday night, we were asked to come help with a fire on the Rice/McPherson county line," said McPherson Fire Department Division Chief TJ Wyssman.


The very next day, firefighters battled another blaze near Sand Hills State Park.


The McPherson Fire Department was sent to fight yet another fire north of Hutchinson on March 5. The fire threatened residences and prompted evacuations.


"It rapidly spread to the north, into Rice County, falling short of our fire Friday in Rice County by just one and a half miles," Wyssman said.


The fire spread two miles in 20 minutes due to strong winds blowing embers into dry grasses and trees.


"It was very windy," Wyssman said. "During the nighttime, we had the wind chill and cold conditions for our men to deal with."


Fire crews are hoping for better weather this weekend that will allow them to fully contain the fire.


"Right now, we think we've got it under control enough to allow our men to rest," Wyssman said. "We're hoping to not be deployed anymore; our resources are pretty exhausted."


The Marquette Fire Department covered three fire districts over the weekend so that firefighters from those districts could concentrate on the wildfires, along with sending resources to the overwhelmed counties.


"We sent trucks down to Hutchinson one day, then to Wilson one day," said Marquette Fire Chief Jim Unruh. "We sent whatever they needed, wherever they needed it."


The combination of dry grasses and high winds created opportunities for further fires to be sparked from blowing embers.


"It's been really wild," Unruh said. "The wind is terrible. Nobody throw out a cigarette right now, because it's really bad."


The Galva Fire Department provided two trucks and five firefighters over the past weekend.


"We've been shuffling crews in and out," said Galva Fire Chief Wayne Williams. "We're all home now, getting trucks cleaned up and ready to go again."


Having other counties and departments free to support Reno and Rice counties crews has been crucial to lessening the fire's impact.


"We're lucky we haven't had any fires in McPherson County," Williams said.


Fire crews from Canton, Moundridge, Inman, Conway and Windom also assisted in fighting the fires.


In Harvey County, fire departments from Halstead and Burrton both provided manpower and equipment for fighting the fires.


"It's been a long weekend for crews from all over the state," said Halstead Fire Chief Jim VanSchaick in a Facebook post.


On March 4, the Newton Fire Department deployed firefighters, a brush truck and a structural firefighting engine to Reno County.


Lindsborg Police Chief Timothy Berggren said the city's fire department went to fight the Reno County and Rice County fires, but had to come back to deal with two fires in Lindsborg.


"We were pretty involved when it first started, then we had fires that happened in our area," Berggren said.


The magnitude of the fire also prompted the activation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Deployment program on Monday. Berggren was active in working with LEAD to coordinate law enforcement resources.


"I started contacting different agencies, mostly chiefs and sheriffs, to try to put together the number of officers requested and sent them to staging to prevent looting," Berggren said.


Law enforcement patrolled evacuated areas, making sure residents had left homes that were in danger from the fires.


"(McPherson) and Wichita were the first ones there when the barricades went up," Brown said.


The McPherson Police Department assigned two officers and two patrol vehicles to Reno County.


"In a situation like this, it is our obligation and duty to strenuously discourage community members trying to enter or 'sight see' the affected areas. This prevents the first responders' abilities to do their jobs effectively," said McPherson Police Chief Robert McClarty in a press release on Tuesday.


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