By Greg Mast
Ottawa Herald – April 21, 2017
Dry conditions coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures and wind make it ripe for wildfires in Kansas.
The Ottawa area has only received just a little more than an inch of rain in 2017. Alan Radcliffe, county emergency management director, said the fire danger came early this year.
“Typically, it’s March and the first two weeks of April,” he said. “We had a lot of rain last year. We have some extra growth.”
Radcliffe, who also is the Pomona Fire Department Assistant Chief, said the conditions make it dangerous for firefighters because of the changing winds, height and dryness of the grass.
“It is hard for fire departments to defend houses because it will burn right across the top of your yard,” Radcliffe said. “We are going to have some pretty dangerous fires this year.”
Radcliffe said the biggest problem with controlled burns is the switching winds.
“If you follow the Kansas Open Burning Regulations, it says you should burn between five and 15 miles per hour wind,” he said. “Typically on those days, you have good smoke disbursement and the wind is constant out of one direction. What you have to look for sometimes is (if) we have any cold fronts coming in, which may make for a wind change. Where we see a lot of our problems this time of year are days like (this past Wednesday) with light and variable winds, then the wind shifts. A person will go out and light a fire and think it is going to travel this direction, and the wind changes and it gets away from them.”
Radcliffe, who also is the county fire marshal, makes the decision on whether there is a burn ban or not. The whole northeast area of Kansas had a Red Flag burn warning last week. He said a lot of factors go into the decision to have a non-burning day.
“One of those is how dry things are, what the wind is doing, what the humidity is going to do, our temperatures, and I take in consideration during the week the availability of firefighters,” Radcliffe said. “If we have a questionable day right now, I am going to err on the side of caution.”
Radcliffe said the county has nine volunteer fire departments, and many times during Monday through Friday those firefighters are unavailable because of work schedules.
Radcliffe said a fire that torched 160 acres this past Wednesday was a good example, as four county departments fought the fire, but only 10 volunteer firefighters were available.
“We are shorthanded during the week,” he said. “We still have fire equipment in the fire stations and don’t have anybody to drive the equipment to the scene. It makes it tough.
“At the beginning of any fire, we are limited in what resources we have coming. We take those fire trucks that we have and protect everything we can, and then start fighting the fire when we get more resources there.”
Radcliffe said firefighters use various maneuvers to fight grass fires, especially if the winds are high and shifting.
“The fire departments will have to get on them pretty quick,” he said. “…It is always our priority to keep people safe, then protect property, houses, out buildings, stacks of hay. Generally, there is a reason firefighters do what they do. One of the tactics used is back burning. People don’t understand sometimes why we are lighting more fires. We are getting rid of the fuel with that fire coming to it. It will help control it or get it away from a structure. You will see some of those tactics used this spring to help protect some of our firefighters.”
Emergency management has meetings every other month with county fire chiefs and assistant fire chiefs, Radcliffe said.
“In those meetings, we talk about issues, concerns, how we are going to do things,” he said. “We had a meeting last month and talked about the burn season. Every fire chief knows everyone in the county. We work together and we train together.”
Radcliffe said he takes into consideration the entire county when making decisions regarding fires. He said having four departments on one fire puts a strain on the resources.
“If we have another fire, who are we going to call to handle those fires?” he said. “I look at the whole county as a picture. We try to make sure the county is protected.”
Before starting a controlled burn, preparation is important, he said.
“Mow around where you are burning or disc around it, however you can control it,” he said. “They need to have a water source there so they can control the fire. If one does get away, don’t think you can put it out, call the fire department. We would much rather put out a small fire than spend all afternoon on a large fire and have several departments called.”
Radcliffe said fires can get out of control fast. One of the fires last week started when a person tried to burn rubbage in a small garden, he said.
“One hundred and sixty acres later, we put the fire out,” Radcliffe said. “It went half-a-mile where it started. This time of year, that is what can happen. When those winds pick up, they will get away from you.”
Radcliffe said there are reasons whey they require people to buy a $1 burn permit.
“With our permit system, we are able to control locally whether burning is allowed or not,” he said. “That is a mitigation tool to help mitigate some of our bad fires. Wildfires are our No. 1 hazard in the county because we have so many of them. They can threaten a lot of homes. If we can put burn bans on, maybe we don’t have as bad of fires. We still have the potential of having one.”
Radcliffe said many of the county permit regulations are the same as the Kansas regulations. One of those is not to burn by yourself and notify the neighbors you are burning, he said.
Another part of the permit is before burning, individuals should call to listen to a recording that notes if burning is permitted that day.
If a person follows the burn permit guidelines and has experience burning, the circumstances usually turn out OK, Radcliffe said.
Radcliffe said he understands the frustrations of county farmers when they can’t burn on days when there is warm weather.
“Anytime you get 50-degree weather, people want to go out and clean up around their place,” he said. “We understand it is time to burn. I try to work with everybody…between the fire departments and the people that want to burn. I know it needs to be done.”
Many times, Radcliffe said he tells the farmers with experience in burning that he has to think of the whole county, and he can’t let one burn and another not.
“We have several pretty good-sized farms in the county,” he said. “They have their own equipment. They know how to burn. We have a lot of people that have small acreages and some of those don’t have experience burning. That creates an issue too where we got more homes close to each other. We have to protect those homes. That is one of our priorities.”
Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
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