Elden Hammerschmidt at Hays Fire and Rescue Sales and Service on Tuesday was ordering parts so the local factory is ready to start work on a new multipurpose Ford fire truck for Ellis County.
The truck will be delivered after the first of the year to Ellis County Fire Department Company Six in Ellis.
“As we speak I’m in the process of ordering the light bar and the other emergency lights,” said Hammerschmidt, sales and office manager for Hays Fire and Rescue.
The new brush and rescue truck will serve the western third of the county, said Darin Myers, director of Ellis County Fire and Emergency Management. It will replace a 1978 International that’s been out of service for a month due to increasing mechanical problems due to the 40-year-old truck living past its lifespan.
“Usually we try to get 20 years out of a truck,” Myers said.
Like the department’s other 18 fire trucks, the new one will be four-wheel drive and can fight both wildfires as well as rescue from the station.
“Any type of rescue incident, that’s the truck that will respond,” he said. “It could be in the middle of a field. It could be on the interstate. Farm accidents. ATV accidents. With high-speed accidents you don’t always land on the road, it can be in ditches and fields.”
The Ellis County Commissioners earlier this month approved the $113,049 purchase, which is part of a 25-year capital replacement plan for the fire district. The chassis is being ordered from the low-bid vendor, Lewis Ford in Hays, and will come with a cab, a V-10 gas motor and custom-built bed.
From there it will go to Hays Fire and Rescue’s factory, where they bend, shape, weld and paint the red aluminum body, install it on the chassis, and then add a 500-gallon water tank, fire pump, plumbing to hook together the pump and hoses, and emergency lights.
“We pretty much do everything it takes to create a fire truck out of a raw chassis,” Hammerschmidt said of the company’s 11 welders, fabricators, plumbers and electricians who work in the plant.
Besides Company Six in Ellis, the Ellis County Fire Department has stations in Hays, Schoenchen, Catharine, Munjor and Victoria, covering 900 square miles of Ellis County. The department’s 85 part-time firefighters are paid per call to respond to wildfires, vehicle fires and farm fires, as well as assist with emergency medical calls, and respond to rescue calls and any other hazardous emergencies.
Besides replacing the old fire truck at Company Six, Myers is also adding $8,450 in protective gear for the firefighters to fight wildfires.
“Wildland gear is different than structural gear,” Myers said. “It’s about 75 percent cheaper and it’s a lot lighter, otherwise firefighters get exhausted out in the field.”
The cooler material protects firefighters from getting overheated or overexerting. Wildland gear works for rescue also, so it prolongs the life of the more expensive structural firefighting gear by not using it as much, he said.
The department has some wildland gear already, but a recent $4,225 cost-share grant from the Kansas Forest Service makes possible the new purchase.
“This is another grant we get to beef up and make sure everyone gets some,” Myers said.
Wildfire has been on the increase not only in Kansas, but in Ellis County.
In 2016, wildfire burned about 1,011 acres in the county. In 2017, that jumped to 8,737 acres. So far in 2018 through Aug. 1, 7,265 acres have burned, including northeast of Hays in early March near Toulon Avenue and Homestead Road. That fire was 8 miles long and more than 2 miles wide.
Myers hopes this year’s number won’t equal the 2017 acres burned. He explained one of the reasons for more fire.
“With all the rain we’re getting, the pasture and ditch grasses are growing thicker and heavier and taller. In years when there’s a lot of snow, the grass compacts and when Spring comes — February, March and April — the grass doesn’t burn as fast,” he said. “We need the snow to help us out, to slow down the burning.”
In recent years, though, snowfall has been sparse. As a result, prairie grass presents a hazard.
“It’s tall. It’s loose. And the wind can push through it, and the fire can start easier and spread faster,” he said. “And there’s more surface area to burn.”
Wildfire in many respects is the norm now, according to state forester Larry Biles, who leads the Kansas Forest Service. The Ellis County Fire Department fights back wildfires alongside the 486 rural fire departments across the state. So far in 2018, about 70,000 acres of grassland have burned in Kansas, Biles said. In 2016, more than 300,000 acres burned, and in 2017 it was more than 500,000 acres. So far for 2018, 70,000 acres have burned, Biles said.
“When those fires break out, the local firefighters are the first responders to start knocking that fire down,” he said. “The locals are critical.”