A month after two wildfires charred a combined 5,200 acres of land east of Hays, Ellis County Fire and Emergency Management on Wednesday afternoon hosted a public information meeting to debrief from the events.
Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Darin Myers presented updated information about the two fires that broke out in Ellis County on March 6 and outlined future goals to improve the county’s fire response efforts.
“We feel collectively ... a lot of things went better. However, we identified we can still continue to make improvements from what we’ve done in the past,” Myers said.
Myers noted the same date last year also saw a wildfire in roughly the same area. Early March has a long history of being a dangerous time for fires, with the Truss plant in southeast Hays burning in 2015 and the county fighting a string of grass fires caused by arson in 2014.
Red flag fire warnings had been issued for March 6 of this year, and proved to be accurate as the two fires quickly spread in heavy winds. The first blaze was reported late that morning just east of Hays near Commerce Parkway. With a fire line spanning approximately 2 miles, it would prove to be the smaller fire reported that day, but attracted much attention due to its close proximity to many homes and businesses within city limits.
A second fire was reported less than two hours later, and that one proved to be “a beast,” burning approximately 5,100 acres of land near Homestead Road/Toulon Avenue northeast of Hays, Myers said. Firefighters faced high wind gusts and rugged terrain, with fire quickly spreading through ravines that were difficult to reach.
Both of those fires — as well as the county’s largest wildfire of 2017 — were caused by some sort of powerline malfunction, such as downed lines or a faulty arrester.
Hays resident Kurt Staab, who had approximately 70 acres of property burned in the Homestead/Toulon fire, said he thinks the county should consider options to make sure power lines in rural areas are inspected regularly and properly maintained.
“I’m involved in the oil too, but we’ve gotta do something. Because somewhere along the line, somebody’s going to get their house burned down, or somebody’s going to get killed,” Staab said. “So either you get them to inspect and they repair or put them underground, or maybe de-energize those lines at 40 mph winds or something.”
Myers said it is an issue county officials are looking into, but noted regulations become complicated since many power lines in rural areas are privately owned.
While homes were threatened by the fires, no structures were lost — a fact Myers said he is thankful for. Ellis County Sheriff’s deputies helped monitor the fire’s proximity to structures and alerted fire crews when flames crept too close.
“Fire trucks, as they were in those areas, they were able to move and adjust and that helped not having a single house burn down, amazingly,” he said. “I just can’t see how we didn’t.”
Two firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, and two rollover accidents were reported as a result of the fires. One accident near the Toulon Avenue fire involved a resident crashing into a law enforcement officer, sending both drivers to the hospital, Myers said.
County officials had firm words warning residents to stay away from active grass fires in the future. Thick smoke significantly reduces visibility and increases the likelihood of an accident, said Ellis County Commission chairman Dean Haselhorst, who attended Wednesday’s meeting and also assisted in fighting the fire near Toulon.
And if a vehicle accident does occur, it draws firefighting and law enforcement resources away from fighting the fire, potentially making the situation more dangerous.
“I know you talked about keeping people out. I think that was some of the biggest hindrance that I know,” Haselhorst said. “You’d be driving along in that smoke, and here a vehicle is sitting there taking pictures. … I about almost hit one coming out, and here they are taking pictures. I thought really? Of all places, you’ve got 40-feet visibility and you’re sitting there taking pictures.”
Also in the Homestead/Toulon fire, a grader backed over a fire truck and caused approximately $6,000 in damage. No one was injured, Myers said, noting it could have been a lot worse.
Future improvements in the emergency response command will include setting fixed locations outside the fire line for water donations and tank refills, and stationing only firefighting crews at the head of the fires, Myers said, noting farmers and public works crews also respond with equipment to help hold the line of fire.
Officials also plan to group non-fire department volunteers with firefighters to ensure effective communication. A lack of radio communications poses a challenge for those volunteers, as well as regional firefighters who respond to help but might have technology that is incompatible with Ellis County’s equipment.
When another large fire event does occur, Myers said he also hopes to have someone serve as a secondary liaison to help coordinate all of the activity. Phone calls were received constantly during the event from residents and businesses wanting to help, as well as frequent communication with the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. The volume of calls was so “overwhelming,” Myers said he wasn’t able to answer all of them.
A silver lining through the dangerous events — which required fire crews to work overnight — was the outpouring of support from county residents and surrounding communities, he said. Many residents and private businesses were quick to bring tanks of water to the fire crews, so much so that firefighters never ran out of water. The county fire station also opened its doors for food and drinking water donations, and received a large surplus of goods. Blackhawk helicopters also were called in from the Kansas National Guard to provide air support.
Several surrounding counties, including Trego, Rooks and Russell, also sent fire crews to assist, along with the Hays Fire Department.
“Russell County actually sent 18 fire units over from all over Russell County,” Myers said. “It really sticks out with me how our communities — our neighbors — how much we love each other and how much we’re here to help each other. That’s just amazing.”