By John Green
Hutchinson News – March 16, 2017
A panel of Hutchinson firefighters Wednesday described some of the challenges, decisions and narrow escapes they experienced battling a wildfire that ripped across thousands of acres of grassland last week.
On March 6, the worst night of the fire that burned 10 homes, firefighters attempted to set up several fronts to stop the blaze roaring through the region’s sand hills, only to have the surprising speed and intensity of the fire push them back.
“We first tried to hold it at Plum, and then we tried to hold it at Lorraine,” said Capt. Craig Rothe. “As we crossed Plum and then cut across to Lorraine, it moved across that section at 20 mph. It did not leave much time to get units moved around, to get in front of it and make a stand before the fire was on you.”
Commanders made the decision to take about a 1½-mile leap on the fire to make that stand, to prevent it from crossing the highway into a heavily wooded and more densely populated subdivision east of K-61, when the inferno reached Lorraine.
“It covered the mile between Plum and Lorraine in less than 10 minutes,” said firefighter Danny Chambers. “We needed greater distance ahead of it.”
Embers in the wind were starting other smaller “spot fires” a quarter to half-mile in front of the main fire, Rothe said, but the speed of the main fire was the concern.
Holding the line
At the highway, a crew of four forestry workers – working in two groups going in opposite directions – used 2½-gallon drip cans of a gasoline/diesel mix to light backfires, starting at the highway pavement and moving west to the highway fencing.
As one can emptied, someone immediately handed them another, Rothe said.
“You’d rather not light a backfire with winds like that, but we’d run out of options,” he said. “It’s what we had to do. Stopping the fire there was critical.”
The backfire stretched more than 3½ miles north and west, blackening the grass for about a 1/8-mile-wide strip ahead of the main fire, in an attempt to starve it of fuel.
Fifty fire trucks lined K-61, stretching from 56th Avenue north to Tobacco Road, while another 50 spread out on 56th several miles to the west.
The fire crews focused on stopping any embers, carried on the 30 mph winds, from igniting grass in the highway median and jumping the roads.
Even then, Rothe said, “it didn’t look like it was going to slow down.”
Other volunteers used heavy equipment to remove trees and plow a fire line on the northern end of the battle line, to box the fire in.
Almost as soon as his unit set up on Lorraine Street to try to protect a small group of four homes there on the night of March 6, said Hutchinson firefighter Cody Young, fire commanders instructed him instead to retreat to the line at 56th and K-61. They quickly wet the properties, then left.
“The decision of what to save and not save is a very tough decision for a firefighter,” Young said. “We don’t like to lose. It is not in our nature to lose. Knowing we were retreating from a fire and the house is right there, it’s tough.”
They expected, when they returned, to find the homes gone, he said. However, when they went back the next day they found all four still standing, unscathed.
“It was a good feeling, knowing we made a difference, at least for those four houses,” he said.
“When you’re listening to your radio and they’re saying they want us to drop back, no one wanted to leave,” firefighter David Goering said. “No one wanted to leave those houses. We lost nine houses. That is terrible for us. That tears us up. We saw the loss. There’s been a huge outreach, but it’s still people’s livelihoods, their homes. However, command staff saw the bigger picture. Where we saw the house, they saw the whole thing and were able to make the right decisions for us.”
As he and his partners drove down about a ¼-mile driveway of a rural home off 56th Avenue, both sides lined with cedar trees, they attempted to assess whether the metal-sided home was defensible, Rothe said.
“We could see a glow behind the cedar trees, but could not see any fire,” Rothe said. “As we were making preparations and stuff, command made the decision to pull back to 56th. We were not involved in the fire, yet. But, as we turned, the whole driveway was. We were cut off from the road by the fire. We had to stay and defend ourselves or ride it out.”
They decided to ride it out, Rothe said.
Among options were an above-ground pool and a tornado shelter. They put on their air packs, cut the pool cover to assess that, and then decided on the storm shelter, dragging out items stored there by the family.
Before they entered the shelter, however, the road cleared. They ran inside the home to retrieve a couple of keepsakes for the homeowners – a cellphone and jewelry box – and then headed to the new fire line.
“I had a guy with me who’d been on the department six months,” said Rothe, a firefighter of 16 years. “By the time we were cut off by the fire, and waiting for it to come to us, I took a picture on my phone. I asked him if he was scared, and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You should be. I am, too.’ ”
“When the fire crossed Plum, I took a group over to Lorraine, to try to do a burn there,” said firefighter Troy Mueller. “When we got there it became evident we couldn’t make it; it was going to overrun us. But we tried to save a few houses before we retreated.”
“The head fire split into two, and jumped in two spots in the road,” Mueller said. “There was a wall of fire between us.”
They sprayed water on their truck to keep it cool and waited.
“It seemed like a long time,” Mueller said. “It was probably only 90 seconds in reality before the fire died down enough for the group to drive through, but it was a very stressful 90 seconds, to have no contact and not know if they were OK.”
Young also described going down the driveway of a rural home with fire in brush on both sides of the driveway.
“I got a little way up (the drive) and felt my lap getting hot,” he said. “I looked down and had two big embers in the truck, on my lap. I can only imagine what my captain thought.”
They got to the house, to find a shed half gone and the smoldering eaves on the home.
“I was putting out the eaves and my captain comes up and slaps a helmet on my head. I don’t wear it to drive. After we got out, I said I was sorry I didn’t have a helmet on. He said I had all these burning embers sitting on my head. I never even felt them.”
After last year’s Anderson Creek wildfire in Barber County and northern Oklahoma, the Hutchinson firefighters said they were anticipating a potentially bad fire season.
Last year’s rains spurred a lot of growth in the grass, which became a tinderbox during an unseasonably warm and dry winter.
“We were all anticipating this,” said Goering. “It comes up every year. So, a week ago we were having (wildfire) refresher courses and we ... said, ‘It’s going to be a bad year.’ ”
“We hope it’s an early spring,” Rothe said. “One thing we’re looking forward to next season is a lot of the targeted area got burned.”
Lasting eight days in all – local crews first responded to a large grass fire in Harvey County on March 3, a fire in Jupiter Hills on March 4 and then the Highlands on March 5 – the fire took a toll on the men.
“By the time this fire broke out Monday, most of the department was exhausted,” Mueller said. “Normally we’re on a 24-hour rotation. Starting Tuesday, the administration changed it to split shifts. We worked 12 hours on, but resting, 12 hours in the field, and then 12 hours off to go home. It quickly got to the point none of us would be very effective if we had to keep going the way we were.”
Many of the volunteer firefighters responding to the scene were from urban areas of eastern Kansas, where timely rains lowered the fire risk.
“There was a lot of shell shock,” Mueller said. “They admitted they had nothing like this where they were from. I was talking to some of the guys from ... Kansas City, Kansas. They said, ‘We have brush trucks and grass fires, but a highway is usually involved in some fashion.’ They don’t have sandy hills and plum thickets and thick terrain that’s surprisingly difficult to get around.”
”It’s our job”
The firefighters said the response of the community “was humbling.”
“To me, it’s our job,” said firefighter Dalton Black. “It’s what we do. We are very grateful and humbled (by the response). People knocking at the fire station door bringing treats and stuff is nice, but we’re here all year, 24/7. It is what we do. We like doing it.”
“For everybody here on the department, for all of the volunteers who showed up, it’s a passion,” Mueller said. “Every single county that came down to help us out, other full-time fire departments that came over to cover our town or help us out … not one of them was told by their boss they had to come here. It was all volunteer. Most said they were a select few on a very long list that were chosen. We love the job we do, even when it does kick us pretty hard and beats us down.”