Crews help fight wind-swept blazes

By Sarah Kessinger
Marysville Advocate – March 16, 2017


“I never thought I’d see a 35-foot wall of flames coming at me like that,” Waterville firefighter Dave Baier said after returning last week from Reno County, where wildfires burned 6,000 acres north of Hutchinson and threatened the city.


Baier and five other firefighters from the Valley Heights community were part of a crew of dozens who fought the wind-swept blazes through Monday night.


Marshall County Emergency Management Director Bill Schwindamann, Marysville, was in the command center at Hutchinson helping coordinate the fire teams.


“The firetrucks really helped hold the line and saved the city of Hutch,” Schwindamann said later of the cooperative effort by firefighters, many of them volunteers, from all over Kansas.


Marysville Police Chief Todd Ackerman was sent to help lead emergency operations in the Ashland area in Clark County, which was devastated by wind-blasted range fires.


Night of fire


At Hutchinson, Baier said they arrived at the command center Monday afternoon and checked in, not expecting to be called for a briefing until 8. But by 6 p.m. winds changed direction and things escalated. More firefighters were quickly added to those spread north of the city.


“We didn’t get much of a briefing, there just wasn’t time,” he said.


Baier, along with Waterville firefighter Aron DeWalt and Blue Rapids firefighters Phil Hanson, fire chief Jason Hemry, Monty Shanks and Ryan Bishop, were sent to the Highland housing area, working in darkness amid brushland and forested areas north of Hutchinson.


“We watched the fire jump the road right in front of us, so we had to come up with a different option,” Baier said.


They started protecting homes, as many as they could, by spraying water.


“We could see a mile in each direction and it was bumper to bumper fire trucks,” he said.


“I’ve been on the fire department since 2008 and it’s nothing I’ve ever experienced…It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”


They stayed out until 5:30 a.m., then got a few hours rest before returning to hit hotspots on Tuesday. They were sent home by 2 p.m. as replacements came in from Colorado.


“They had plenty of help when we left,” he said.


Baier, who is a Marshall County commissioner, said he learned that no matter how much training and planning, “when there’s a big catastrophe, there’s a lot of chaos. But if you follow command, they’re pretty well organized.


“It was nice to see a band of brothers come together and save a town.”


Hutchinson residents were grateful and welcoming, he said.


“Citizens would stop us just to tell us thanks.”


Baier said they showed some of the urban fire departments how to battle grassfires. He was glad to be teamed up with his local crews as they could help each other in unfamiliar terrain. The sandy soil made it difficult to get trucks in and out.


“We had no injuries and didn’t ruin any equipment while we were down there,” he said. “I’m sure if the need arises again any one of us six would jump on the wagon and head any direction we needed to.”


Kudos to the guys


Schwindamann returned home on Thursday, March 9, after several days of working with fire teams to assure they had proper equipment.


“It all went fairly well,” he said, noting the fires’ rekindling with the wind on Monday was a challenge.


The area north of Hutchinson was a tough place to fight the blazes, Schwindamann said, with groves of trees and lots of dead wood left by ice storms in the last few years.


He said they’ll review what they learned and share it with volunteer fire crews across Marshall County.


“We always learn a lot,” Schwindamann said. “How to manage if something like it were to happen here, what we’d need to do so we don’t run into the same pitfalls.”


The 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts were devastating to areas of central and western Kansas that are now “tinder dry,” he said.


“It was a unique situation that was very volatile. We’ve got to thank everybody, the volunteer firefighters who came in to help from all over. Kudos to them guys. They did a great job.”


Hundreds of responders


Like Schwindamann, Marysville’s Ackerman is a member of the Kansas All Hazards Incident Management Team.


He was sent to head all police, fire, EMS and rescue operations for the Ashland area.


Ackerman said more than 250 responders battled the fires with more than 100 fire vehicles, five helicopters (Black Hawks and Chinooks) and two fixed-wing planes.


“It’s the first time I’ve worked a wild fire. It’s a lot different from a tornado,” Ackerman said. “That’s a one-time event and this was ongoing for several days.”


Several counties sent crews and then there were wild fire crews out of Denver.


The fire burned more than 460,000 acres, including multiple homes and ranches. There was one fatality of a driver whose semi truck became stuck and as he left the vehicle the smoke overwhelmed him.


Ackerman spent most of last week manning the operations, returning here Friday.


He recalled working the devastation of the Greensburg tornado in 2007 not far to the east of where last week’s fires raged.


“When I was in Greensburg it was a square mile of devastation. Here, I drove miles and miles and saw nothing left. Countless cow-calf pairs dead everywhere.”


The blaze burned at least four square miles an hour with 50- to 60-mile-per-hour winds. There were scores of deer and other livestock they had to put down as well, he said.


“It’s called a fire storm.”


Ackerman said it’s left the region with a huge economic impact.


“There’s a lot of people shipping in hay right now by the truckload.”


With plenty of rain in the last few years, followed by a lot of grass growth and then the return of drought, the area was prime for wildfire.


“One county donated an excavator to dig out a hole in the Cimarron River to create a pool so the helicopters could dip in for water. That’s how dry it was,” Ackerman said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”


About 85 percent of the county burned.


Ackerman said he learned you have to make firefighters sleep.


“They have to go into rehab for multiple hours to sleep but they want to go back out,” he said.


The outpouring of volunteer help was immense, too.


When he left and they turned operations back over to the local emergency crew, Ackerman said, there was one big hope among all of them.


“We’re hoping for rain.”