SALINA — As Saline County sheriff, Darrell Wilson saw a lot of grass fires, but a blaze that roared across western parts of the county when he was assistant police chief 30 years ago is something he won’t forget.
“It was going so fast and burning so hot,” Wilson said of the November 1982 fire. “The flames were 10 feet high because the grass was so dry and the grass was high. Firefighters couldn’t get a handle on it.”
Wilson said strong winds kept the fire alive for several days. He said one man and several head of cattle were “burnt up” in the blaze.
Volunteers, including Wilson and then Police Chief John Woody, were called upon to bring barrels of water and fight the fire with whatever they could as rural firefighters constantly ran out of water.
“The rural trucks only held 200 gallons of water,” Wilson said. “They were having a time with it.”
Since the 1982 fire, equipment for fighting rural fires has improved, but Joe Koch, director of Saline County Emergency Management, said prairie fires remain a big concern across a dry Saline County and central Kansas.
“When it gets extremely dry like this, all it takes is one fire to get out of control,” Koch said. “High winds, dryness and other things in the environment coming together could give us another event like the ’82 fire.”
Koch said Saline County has received about 9.5 inches of rain through June 15 — more than 3 inches less of the almost 13-inch yearly rainfall average for the county.
Koch said the November 1982 fire burned more than 100 square miles of pasture ground in Saline County after entering from Ellsworth County. The town of Hedville had to be evacuated as the fire threatened, and Brookville residents fought to keep fires away from their town.
By the time Wilson and Woody responded, a command post had been established at Interstate Highway 70 and Hedville Road. Wilson said 40 mph winds pushed the fire at a rapid rate.
“When Woody and I heard what was going on (with the fire), we loaded up and went out to see if we could help,” Wilson said. “The chief manned the command post since there wasn’t much we could do since we weren’t equipped to fight fires.”
Volunteers were called from around the area to fight the fire and bring water. People used wet bags in an attempt to beat out the fire.
“The wind was howlin’ and blowin’ out of the southwest,” Wilson said. “They (firefighters) were only able to get a handle on it when the wind let up.”
Wilson said a large number of cattle attempted to flee the fire but became pinned against fences and were burned alive.
Despite the large area burned, few buildings suffered damage, Wilson said.
“There was a lot of concern about the fire reaching Salina and structures, but I don’t think we lost any houses,” Wilson said. “It was mainly just grass, vegetation, trees, telephone poles and a lot of fence. It burned a lot of fence on the Walker and Vanier ranches.”
While he wasn’t out in the field helping fight the 1982 fire, Salina Fire Department Capt. Bryan Keeler remembers how rural fire districts and volunteers battled the blaze.
“Since it was a rural fire, the city fire department had little involvement,” Keeler said. “At the time, we had people manning the old Schilling Air Force Base fire station and had some aircraft crash trucks that we sent out since they could go off-road.”
Even though the city provides mutual aid to rural fire districts, Keeler said the city fire department is equipped for fighting concentrated fires with a lot of fuel; not fires that can spread quickly and require less water.
“We are set up for city firefighting,” Keeler said. “Rural firefighting has a different set of needs. Our fires don’t move and have a lot of fuel in one place that requires a lot more water.”
Last year, a large fire that started in Ellsworth County sent members from Saline County rural fire districts into the neighboring county.
“It was a big fire that started in Horsethief Canyon so we rendered mutual aid to Ellsworth County,” Koch said. “We felt the best strategy was to go on the offense and keep it from getting into the county. We got it put out before it hit the county line.”
Koch said a spark could start a large fire, and it could grow quickly. Fires in ditches and along railroad tracks are common when it is dry.
“They ignite fairly easily,” Koch said. “Hot rubber from a tire blowing out going into the ditch, a cigarette or hot exhaust going across a pasture can ignite it.”
Koch said he hopes farmers will bale more hay this year and do less burning of fields to reduce the threat of burns going out of control.
Despite some green vegetation still in the fields and a few small rain showers, Koch is concerned about what lies beneath.
“Beneath the green vegetation is dead vegetation, and that burns quickly,” Koch said.
‘A big hazard’
Because of the dry conditions, Ellsworth, Lincoln and Russell counties have enacted burn bans. Koch said it may not be long before Saline County issues one. Koch said the dry conditions in the county create a situation where a major grass fire could occur at any time.
“We will continue to monitor the conditions to make the determination whether we need a burn ban,” Koch said.
Koch said techniques and equipment for fighting prairie fires have improved over the years. He said the volunteer rural firefighters are better trained.
“We also use mutual aid more effectively and coordinate our activities better with others,” Koch said.
Aside from the training of rural firefighters, Rural Fire District No. 6 in Smolan has a portable water pump that Saline County residents can reserve.
“It is part of our mitigation strategy, and someone can check it out for a day,” Koch said. “It can lay a lot of water and put out a fire quickly.”
Despite the improvements in technology, Koch said a massive prairie fire could spark up at any time.
“Prairie fires are a big hazard and are very dangerous,” Koch said. “Our goal is to get the fires out as quickly as possible to protect life and property.”
Wilson said fast-moving prairie fires are dangerous for everyone involved in fighting them.
“I have seen a lot of grass fires but nothing running as fast with the wind as that one (’82 fire),” Wilson said. “It would cover a section of ground in no time. It was pretty scary.”