By Savannah Downing
Hays Daily News – March 13, 2017
More than half a million — 712,00 to be more precise.
As of Friday evening, that’s the number of acres ravaged by grass fires in the last week in Kansas, according to a situation report released by the state. It is a new record when it comes to Kansas wildfires.
It’s also a record most people affected by this week’s events likely would rather forget.
On the front lines trying to cut down on that amount of damage, though, are firefighters — a large majority of which are volunteers. There are those who leave their day jobs to pull on the uniform and hang off the back of a truck or hold a hose as the last defense between someone’s home or land and the destruction of a wildfire.
These volunteers, who hours earlier might have been selling insurance or working in customer service, are now the last hope for communities facing tragedy.
Justin Casey, Plainville, is an insurance agent and assistant football coach who has been a volunteer firefighter for 11 years. Casey was inspired to get involved as two of his neighbors growing up were volunteers. One of those being Butch Post — now the Rooks County emergency coordinator.
“I’ve been on our department for 11 years, and I’ve never been involved with a grass fire that intense. It’s really hard to describe what it’s like being in a field with 50 to 60 mph wind and knowing deep inside the fire has the upper hand until we have the resources to slow it down. That’s a real helpless feeling,” Casey said. “We assisted with the Stockton fire, but our Chief, Craig Wise, had a number of calls to see if we could help elsewhere. Ultimately, we had to keep our resources close.”
Casey said there is an adrenaline rush when it comes to fighting fires.
“Honestly, you have to be a little crazy to go into some of the situations we do,” Casey said with a laugh.
According to Randy Hill, search and rescue coordinator with the Kansas Fire Marshall’s Office, tackling the multiple fires throughout the state would not have been possible without the assistance of those volunteer agencies.
“We did have assistance from bigger departments as well, but by far the majority were volunteer agencies sending three to five guys with a brush truck and a tanker,” Hill said. “There’s just no way to even begin to fight those large fires without them.”
Hill said the first general requirement is a person has to be 18 years of age to become a volunteer firefighter, although some explore programs let some start younger than that on non-emergency situations.
Some departments require Firefighter 1 training to be completed before they hire someone, while other agencies hire first and do on-the-job training and complete certification in-house.
Training for the volunteers includes basic EMS training, fireground operations, hazardous material operations training and introduction to the equipment among other things.
Different agencies will visit departments to conduct training including the Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute based at the University of Kansas. Firefighters then will take a test to receive their certification.
“Training is also done by officers in the department,” Hill said. “They train them on their own equipment, how to use the ladders, hoses, etc.”
The importance of those volunteer firefighters never was more evident than in the widespread fires that Kansas faced last week.
Post said 16 different volunteer agencies assisted with the fire in Rooks County that burned more than 10,000 acres, and at one point forced evacuations in parts of Stockton, the county seat.
“Without them in a situation like this, there’s no way we could get it stopped without mutual aid from other people,” Post said. “We don’t have enough manpower to handle that.”
There are five different volunteer fire departments in Rooks County.
“We live off that mutual aid with each other,” Post said.
The fire south of Stockton began approximately after 1 p.m. Monday and crews worked through the nights up until Wednesday.
Post said some of their firefighters put in 14-hour shifts during that time. Therefore, even though there is still assistance needed in other parts of the state, Post said in their countywide fire meeting they decided not to send any of their volunteers at this time.
“Just simply because of the fatigue of our firefighters and the dry conditions leaving the potential to start more fires in our area,” Post said. “We want to pay back the help we’ve been given, but at this time we figured we wouldn’t be much help until we’re rested.”
Darin Myers, Ellis County fire chief and emergency manager, said his department also had to decline a request yesterday for more support in Comanche County with additional brush trucks and tankers.
“It becomes a safety factor,” Myers said. “You need to give them time to go home, sleep, spend time with their families and unfortunately, these people have to go back to their jobs now that this is over.”
Myers said the Ellis County Rural Fire Department has 82 volunteer firefighters who work at a variety of places throughout the county, including Ashley Furniture, Midwest Energy, Leon’s Welding and Fabrication, Smoky Hill Meat Processing and many more.
“I can’t say enough how much we appreciate all the employers who support us and let their employees leave and help when the call comes in,” Myers said.
The rural fire department had sent crews to Reno County to assist with that fire before coming back to help battle the blaze in Rooks County.
Myers said they then worked the fire that began in Ellis County and spread into Russell County.
The department received additional requests from Ransom, Clark and Comanche counties and Ford County that they were unable to assist with.
Myers said they are always looking for more volunteer firefighters.
“Only approximately 20 percent of fire departments are full-time departments,” Myers said. “Eighty percent are volunteer departments that serve rural areas with less people. That means less people available to add to our local fire departments.”
One of the requirements for being a firefighter is the mental aptitude to deal with many different situations.
“We see and do things from the medical side to responding to different types of emergencies,” Myers said. “Not just anyone is able to handle that.”
Hays City Fire Chief Gary Brown said the new partnership between the city and the county fire departments has allowed training to occur on both sides.
“They are training us on situations we’re not used to responding to like grass fires, and we are training them on the types of situations we deal with,” Brown said.
While the Hays fire trucks are not made for fighting wildfires, the department was able to send two of its airport crash trucks with modified hoses to assist with the fires in Ransom as well as the fire north of Hays in Ellis and Russell counties.
“What the volunteer firefighters do out in the county is phenomenal,” Brown said. “Imagine what it would cost to replace those departments with career firefighters.”
Brown said it’s so important that the community support those volunteer firefighters, and he said it’s evident that the community does support them.
“Look how many employers in the last few days have had people off the job because they’re working 24 or 36 hours fighting grass fires someplace,” Brown said. “Look how many oil field companies and farmers assisted with water tanker trucks and equipment. This was unusual, but look at how the community pulled together to deal with it.”
Casey said he would encourage anyone considering becoming a volunteer firefighter to really examine their situation and make sure it’s something they are able to commit to.
“We sacrifice a lot of time that takes away from family, friends and jobs,” Casey said. “But the best part is knowing that we are helping to protect someone’s life, property, cattle, etc.”
He also talked about the camaraderie that exists among the members of the department.
“I’m fortunate to be a part of a great group of guys in Plainville and I know the next time the tones go off, our guys will be bringing their ‘A’ game,” Casey said.
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter can visit or call their local fire department for more information.