Fires, bans grow in area

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

RUSSELL -- It's beginning to look like the Fourth of July might be celebrated another time, after rains finally fall, reducing the extreme fire dangers existing throughout much of northwest Kansas.

In a meeting punctuated by the report of a grass fire north of Gorham, the Russell County Commission on Thursday afternoon reluctantly agreed to ban the discharge of fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county.

They first, however, stripped away provisions making it illegal to either sell or possess fireworks.

And they agreed to make a special effort to have some sort of celebratory day of fireworks as soon as the ban is lifted and it's safe to shoot off fireworks.

Mark and Jim Carter -- owners of a fireworks stand approximately 200 feet west of the Russell City limits -- struggled to accept the decision.

"We'll stay open," Mark Carter said.

"Once the boxes are open, they're ours," Jim Carter said.

Russell's action is the latest in a series of moves by local governments rethinking the use of fireworks -- discussions coming after a series of grass fires Wednesday in Phillips, Ellis, Rooks and Russell counties.

Earlier Thursday, the Victoria City Council agreed to ban fireworks July 4 as a result of the "extreme dry conditions."

They join Ness County and the cities of Bazine, Ness City and Ransom in banning the discharge of fireworks. Thursday evening, the Plainville City Council agreed to ban fireworks.

In a joint session Thursday, Graham County and Hill City each passed resolutions allowing the sale and purchase of fireworks but banning their use -- for now. They also put in place a regular burn ban.

"It is the intent of both governing bodies to allow purchased fireworks to be discharged at a later date when conditions improve," a statement from the Graham County Sheriff and Emergency Management offices announced.

The Russell City Council will take up the notion of banning the use of fireworks in a special meeting scheduled for this afternoon.

Commissioners in Norton, Trego and Thomas counties also are scheduled to discuss possible bans in meetings today as well. The Ellis City Council will take up a possible ban this afternoon.

Thursday's special meeting was called by Russell County Commission Chairman Allen Kuntzsch, a member of the Bunker Hill fire department, one of several called out to a fire in the Dorrance area Wednesday.

"A lot of firefighters are worried," he said of the specter of grass fires caused by fireworks.

Wednesday's fire, said Ron Major, chief of the Dorrance Rural Fire District No. 4, was pushed along by strong winds -- moving faster than even he expected it to do.

One abandoned farmstead, he said, was destroyed by the fire, stopped one stubble field before it got to another -- one that was occupied.

He urged commissioners to approve the ban, otherwise there will be fires.

"We're going to be out there fighting it and we're going to lose firefighters," Major said. "I'm sure of it."

The cause of that fire isn't yet known, and is believed to have been the second largest grass fire in the state. A grass fire in Phillips County is believed to have been even bigger, Russell County Emergency Management director Keith Haberer said.

While there was a strong showing of firefighters at the meeting -- interrupted by the fire call near Gorham -- operators of two fireworks stands sought some relief. Observers also called for fines to be increased beyond the $100 to $500 fine proposed.

Commissioners agreed to modify the resolution -- taking out the prohibition against the sale or possession of fireworks -- and include a provision requiring restitution for "any fire department services" for anyone convicted of illegally discharging fireworks.

Kuntzsch said the Bunker Hill department alone incurred $1,500 to $1,800 in costs for Wednesday's fire, "and that wasn't even our district. That wasn't our fire."

Volunteer firefighters, he said, only receive $10 an hour when they go on calls.

The Carters are unsure what the ban will do to their business, and are concerned the city of Russell, when it meets today, might go along with the county's decision.

Two members of the Russell City Council attended, but said nothing.

"We've sold fireworks for 38 years," Mark Carter said, and together, they handle the city's display.

"It's just a bad deal," Jim Carter said, suggesting it would have been better to take action prior to the opening of the fireworks stand Wednesday. Fireworks can be returned to the wholesaler if cases are unopened.

He's also convinced the law will be violated.

"The people who bought them are going to shoot them," he said.