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Wildfire wipes out 11 years of Stanton County farmer’s work — in five hours

It was a warm, windy morning on March 22, 2011. Steve Arnold and his wife, Kathleen, were getting ready to leave home for a Farm Credit Association meeting in Wichita. Steve commented on the wind: how it had howled all night when it normally died down after sunset, and picked up again at mid-morning.

Wildfire wipes out 11 years of Stanton County farmer’s work — in five hours

It was a warm, windy morning on March 22, 2011. Steve Arnold and his wife, Kathleen, were getting ready to leave home for a Farm Credit Association meeting in Wichita. Steve commented on the wind: how it had howled all night when it normally died down after sunset, and picked up again at mid-morning.

“Good thing we’ve been no-tilling,” Arnold told his wife. “At least with all the residues we’ve got, we don’t have to worry about the land blowing out.”

Little did he know that 17 miles away, out in a pasture on the edge of the Colorado border, the wind, aided by a loose power-line connection on a pole near an abandoned barn, was about to give life to one of the most feared monsters of the open prairie: wildfire.

The Arnolds had been on the road a little over an hour when the emergency scanners in the pickup truck sprang to life with reports of an out-of-control grass fire pushed by persistent west winds of 35 mph, with gusts over 50 mph. It was moving east. And moving fast.

Beepers on the belts of volunteer firefighters started going off. In Stanton, Grant, Hamilton, Morton, Kearny, Haskell and Stevens counties, and across the border in Baca and Prowers counties in Colorado, the volunteers dropped whatever they were doing and headed to the firehouse. Everybody’s help was needed to fight this one.

Key Points

• Loose electrical line starts a massive wildfire.

• Volunteer fire departments and farmers mobilize to fight fire.

• The blaze covers 60 square miles in five hours; no homes or lives were lost.

It had been a dry fall and a dry winter. Tinderbox dry grass stood 12 to 18 inches high. Within an hour, firefighters knew they couldn’t control the blaze. They focused their efforts on saving the 16 to 18 homes in the path of the fire.

Farmers and farm businesses in the path of the fire mobilized to try to contain it. More than 20 farmers hooked up disks to tractors to bury the dry grass and field residue that provided fuel to the fire. They couldn’t get ahead of the blaze; they concentrated on trying to prevent it from growing wider.

At the firehouse in Johnson, volunteer firefighter and staff recorder Jerry Popejoy got the page at 11:25 a.m.

“We jumped into everything we had drivers for and headed west,” he says. “It took me 12 minutes to get out there in the command vehicle and the fire had moved six miles. That’s how fast it was going.

The fire devoured grasslands and swept with growing heat through no-till residue and shelterbelts. Red cedars exploded in the flames, shooting burning embers high into the air, where the wind picked them up and hurled them into the dry grass ahead of the fast-moving fire line. Smoke spread as far east as Dodge City.

On Highway 54, Steve Arnold was just approaching Bucklin. He turned the truck around and headed for home at top speed.

The flames raced down the railroad tracks, setting ties ablaze and melting the steel framework of the railroad bridges.

“The wind was blowing so hard,” Popejoy says. “In the areas where it had burned off, the dirt started blowing. Between the smoke and the dirt, visibility was just nothing. We couldn’t see what was happening or where we were going. We are very lucky that nobody got hurt.”

Water for fire trucks

At the Skyland Grain Co-op in Johnson, location manager Mike Schmidt was remembering a spate of dry lightning grass fires three years earlier near Syracuse. One problem, he remembered, was that there was no ready water source at the fire scene, and the firefighters lost valuable time driving back town to reload trucks.

He looked around the Skyland yard: four semis with tankers, six or seven tandem truck tanks and a dozen or so smaller tankers, holding maybe 1,000 gallons each.In minutes, the co-op’s trucks were rolling to the fire.

Schmidt soon realized that the smaller, more mobile tankers were far more valuable that the simple volume they added.

“One of the problems at the scene of the fire was that there was no place to turn our semis around,” he says. “It meant they weren’t very agile at staying out of harm’s way. But the smaller trucks could maneuver around, refilling and taking the water to where it was needed most. The firefighters could give us a position for the semis, and we could just stand there.”

He recalled one close call where a semi driver watched the smoke rolling closer and closer to his position, and made a decision to just start backing up.

“He was backing faster and faster down a dirt road and finally thought he was far enough. He stopped just as the fire line rolled right over where he had been sitting,” Schmidt says.

Victory at last

Steve Arnold got back to his farm just in time to see the fire jump Highway 160 and head straight for his house. In the path of the hungry flames was his windbreak of red cedar trees, followed by his fuel tanks, shop and business offices.

“That was the absolutely scariest moment of my life,” Arnold says, “It looked like nothing would stop it from taking out my farm and moving right on into town.”

As he watched, the fire line hit the green, growing wheat to the west of his house: two half-section fields, side by side.

The efforts of local farmers had succeeded in controlling the width of the fire. The green crop slowed and cooled the blaze. When no-till residue in the field caught fire, farmers quickly disked the perimeter to throw up dirt.

The monster’s march was halted. In just five hours it had burned 60 square miles of fields: 32,000 acres in a line 17 miles long and 3 to 4 miles wide.

As the flames died down, many breathed a sigh of relief. No lives or homes had been lost. There were no serious injuries. The worst was over.In reality, the destruction had just begun.

We Kansans have given ourselves reason to believe that the nightmare of the “Dirty Thirties” will never again darken our skies.We’ve planted shelterbelts, converted thousands of vulnerable acres to grass and adopted no-till farming.

Farmers in Stanton County have spent the last 12 months absorbing a bitter lesson. We have not won. Our efforts of decades can be wiped out in hours. And when the wind comes right behind the wildfire, nothing stops the land from blowing.

No-till and precision farmer Steve Arnold says he has learned that risk management planning for wildfire is as critical as it is for any other part of farming.

His hours of terror and loss are 1 year old this month. Yours could start tomorrow.

03122060A.tifBARREN LANDSCAPE: Steve Arnold lost 11 years of no-till residue and organic matter to fire — and tons of topsoil to wind erosion in the aftermath.

MARKING SAMPLES: Steve Arnold marks a soil-sample tube with its location. He has been taking probes at various locations in piled-up dirt piles in the hope it will provide him guidance on how to redistribute the soil back onto his fields.
YUCCA RECOVERING: The fire was so hot it burned even the yucca on the farm. Now, with a fall rain — and more recently, 11 inches of snow — the cactus is coming back.
PURE SAND: Steve Arnold shows a handful of what’s left after a year of blowing on his fields. “It’s like playbox sand,” he said.

This article published in the March, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.

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