As drought continues, Kansas and county officials prepare for wildfire season

Like always, rancher Bernie Smith watches the weather daily this time of year.

So do the 17 other rancher firefighters that are part of the Englewood, Kansas, fire department.

With this season drier than last year, when record-breaking wildfires burned from Kansas to Texas, rural fire departments are on alert. Conditions are ripe for another active fire season, said Smith, Englewood’s fire chief.

Volunteer fire crews were ready when the Starbuck Fire blazed on March 6, 2017, Smith said. Part of the daily routine during high-fire days is to check the weather as well as communicate with volunteers about where everyone is at.

There is also communication with other rural fire departments.

“Honestly the fire guys are already alert, even before it happens,” Smith said, adding many congregate at the fire station during red-flag days.

However, he added, “We are probably better prepared because we have that experience behind us. We learn from every fire.”

After last year’s fire, Kansas and county officials are looking for ways to better plan and prepare, said Millie Fudge, Clark County’s emergency preparedness coordinator.

Starbuck wasn’t a typical grassfire, she said. Government officials have told her Starbuck wasn’t just the largest in Kansas, but the largest wildfire on private land in the past 50 years.

“No matter what you do, it would be hard to prepare for a fire like this,” Fudge said. “It was such an unusual fire.”

On Feb. 22, Fudge, along with the Clark County sheriff, Smith and several rural county fire departments met with state officials about ways to improve a response plan.

“Part of it is we know what can happen after the last two years of fires,” Fudge said. “The concern is how in the world do you prepare for that.”

Smith stressed the need for funding and for continued help and support from the Kansas Forest Service.

However, Smith said, the forest service is underfunded.

The Kansas Forest Service provides support to local fire districts through management, personnel, training, education and equipment.

“They are a vital role in the fire departments across Kansas,” Smith said. “We do get a lot of equipment, resources, from forestry.”

Ross Hauck, fire management coordinator with the Kansas service, wrote in a blog post in June that while Kansas has four fire personnel, Oklahoma has 84 personnel with a fire budget of $8 million. Kansas’ budget is $1 million. Oklahoma, he said, staffs 47 engines and 47 bulldozers. The Kansas service has two engines.

Fudge noted Oklahoma already has several planes stationed at Woodward in preparation for the upcoming fire season.

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She said they had a good, productive meeting with state officials, discussing several ideas on how the state can better provide resources.

“We are trying to get everything ready so we can act as soon as possible,” she said.

Smith said one option is to position fire trucks in western Kansas in multi-county task force areas.

Clark County was one of the first to form a strike team 10 years ago. A strike team consists of fire engines of the same type and a lead vehicle that can be sent out to help fight wildfires. Smith said they are working now with multiple counties to help respond when needed.

The multi-county task force brings together two or three different trucks from rural departments to fight the same fire.

One idea brought up at the meeting, Smith said, is to have four brush trucks and two tanker trucks for an east task force area.

“The first three or four hours of a fire are pretty critical,” Smith said of getting the equipment and personnel together to control the fire.

His own department has added equipment.

While the area is “better off today” in preparation, he is concerned about the potential for another fire. The entire southern plains remain in a drought, with an area from southwest Kansas to the Texas Panhandle listed as extreme.

“We are checking with our crews and checking with the weather and keeping an eye on the sky,” Smith said.

Fudge said spring rains last year helped spur grass growth.

“Everything grew and we have a lot of dry fuel,” she said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].