By Rachel Skytta
KWCH - March 28, 2017
For the past two years, Kansas firefighters have been forced to battle massive wildfires with minimal resources. Last year's Anderson Creek fire was just the beginning. Two more damaging fires in Clark and Reno Counties have firefighters urging the state for more help.
After nearly 40 years as a volunteer firefighter, Cheney Fire Chief Brad Ewy knows not to expect an abundance of resources.
"We try to use every resource we can but it doesn't go very far," said Ewy.
Yet volunteer firefighters like him are expected to defend towns, save structures and battle fires stretching thousands of acres.
In the midst of yet another active fire season, Ewy says something has to change.
"The state is going to have to kick in and help us," said Ewy.
State resources are minimal, at best for Kansas volunteer firefighters. In 2016, the Kansas Forest Service had a total budget of $3.1 million. Oklahoma's was nearly five times that at $15.2 million.
Only $343,000 of Kansas' budget came from the state. At least $3.2 million of Oklahoma's was state allocated. And in Kansas, about $1 million was solely dedicated to fire services, compared to about $8 million in Oklahoma.
More money means more resources. The Kansas State Forest Service has just four full time employees. Oklahoma has a staff of nearly 100, including 84 fire rangers responsible for battling wild fires.
"Oklahoma, when they get a fire started they know how to put their teams together and get out there and fight it. We need to learn from them," said Ewy.
George Geissler, Oklahoma State Forester, says much of the agency's success has to do with organization and efficiency -- not simply funds. He agrees more could be done to bring Kansas to that level.
Larry Biles with the Kansas Forest Service says they are in the process of laying out ideas for expanding Kansas' fire program. Biles says he's not sure Kansas needs an operation as large as Oklahoma's, but says they do need more than four full time employees.
Biles says they're not only looking to state government for help, but to surrounding states as well. A bill is currently working its way through the legislature that would allow Kansas to join a wildfire compact, and call on surrounding states for help during a fire. Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska already have that ability.
"By virtue of not being a member, we cannot partner with our state foresters. Meaning they don't have the license to come into our state," said Biles.
We asked Governor Sam Brownback if he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk, and whether he believes Kansas fire services are underfunded. The Governor's Communications Director responded:
"The Governor supports cooperation between Kansas firefighters and our neighbors and will review HB2140 if it comes to his desk. He will continue working with the legislature to ensure that our firefighters have the funding needed to keep Kansans safe."
Dozens of homes were lost in this season's wildfires and thousands of cattle killed. Ewy says firefighters expect more damaging seasons in the coming years.
"You can't continue to burn as big of fires as these are and not start allocating resources to get those controlled."