For most of the the last 2 months through day after day of dry weather and strong winds, with a huge fuel load on our prairies I have figured we would have a big out of control fire. I had been wrong day after day, through all the red flag warnings and the like. Just when I quit carrying the camera, it finally happened, yesterday (April 4) we got a big one.
The problem really started the day before. It has to be understood first of all just how important fire is to the tallgrass prairie, I guess the best way to put it is that fire is just as important to the Flinthills rancher as fungicide is to the UK wheat grower. Fire keeps our prairie from going to trees and brush, it gets rid of the old grass to allow the fresh young grass to grow. Getting rid of the old fuel also ends the ever present danger of fire we live with every dry windy day from the 1st of October to the time the pastures are finally burned in April. I have been surprised more burning has not already been done, but we have had such a string of windy high to extreme fire weather days, along with cold temps, that most people have been reluctant to burn. For one reason or another, all that ended Friday afternoon. It might have been because high winds were forecast for Saturday, and rain Saturday night, it might have been because we are just a few weeks from going to grass and guys are getting nervous about having so much work to do in such a short time, or it might be all of the above, but mid afternoon Friday the sky began to fill with plumes of smoke, even though it was fairly windy. In no time at all, the pager began sounding its various tones for the divisions throughout the county as the fires started jumping roads. By 5pm our tone sounded, a fire had jumped and was going through a 640 acre pasture that will probably be burned in a week or less anyway, problem was a strong southeast wind was driving it straight toward a small town of about 50 people, and if it jumped the next road it would be in some oil storage tanks. Our snow and rain from the weekend before made for some muddy fire fighting, but we were able to get a handle on that fire in about an hour, a stuck truck led to some yelling by the chief and some sore feelings...not good with volunteers.
At around 10:30 pm the tones sounded for the 2 divisions directly west of us, in 5 minutes our tone sounded for the same fire, some 15 miles away from home, in very rough terrain. When I arrived at the firebarn only one other person was there, no doubt in no small part due to the harsh words over the stuck fire truck earlier in the day. The pager was sounded twice more, and after a considerable amount of begging by me over the radio, 3 more guys showed up. Our trip overland through hills and draws took us 45 minutes, we had been told this fire had come from the adjoining county and we would meet up with fire trucks from that county fighting the fire....either we did not find the right fire, or we were misinformed, because when the trucks from all three divisions finally met up at about a quarter of midnight in a moonlit pasture, we found lots of fire, and no one putting it out. The terrain was such we could not get to the fire, a walk by flashlight around much of the perimeter seemed to indicate the fire was contained by a creek, and burned grass on either side. The area west of here is about 400 feet higher than the area I live in, we were able to get a good view of much of the county looking back to the east and south, there were numerous fires all over, and the thought crossed my mind as the wind was supposed to come up to gusts over 40 Saturday, these fires could become uncontrollable the next day. We left without doing much of anything, and I crawled into bed at 2:30 am Saturday morning.
When I reluctantly awoke later in the morning, the first thing to greet me logging into the weather was a red flag warning. The strong south wind picked up strength all morning, just as I was about to sit down to a wonderful lunch Mrs. KF had prepared, the phone rang from our chief, telling me there was a good deal of smoke coming from the general area we had been in the night before. His unsaid message was he wanted me to drive the 15 miles on my own to see what the situation was, I did not take the bait and did not offer to do it. So, he had dispatch set of our pagers, and with my lunch sitting on the table, off I went again. On the way to town I called one of the ranchers in that area, John. John is never much for putting out a fire this time of year, as he says, "it'll all be black in a week anyway". However, John was some 7 miles north of the fire in a 5000 acre pasture he rents checking his calving cows, the fire happened to be heading that way. He further commented, very slowly, that "it is rolling right along Brian". It was agreed he would get closer to the fire while we headed trucks that way. Within 5 minutes my phone rang again(John talks with a very slow drawl) with the following report, "weeeellll I reckon it has gone 2 miles in about 15 minutes, this whole country will be black in a few days anyway, buuutttt this wind is blowing pretty good and there are alot of oil wells and tank batteries in the path of it to catch fire...I think it will stop at the creek, buuuuttt, the creek ain't very wide and it might jump it.........if it does, well, then Katy bar the door....the only cattle between it and the river are my cows......fellers, I reckon we better stop it, I guess if we can't the north branch will stop it by evening" (meaning the river I live on, 10-15 miles away).
The fire was somewhat closer to town than the one early in the morning, although it appeared to have traveled about 3-5 miles back toward us when we got near it, I am unclear yet if it had started from the fire we did not put out because we felt it was contained,or one of the remnants of the half dozen other fires we drove through to get to it. At any rate, when our first 2 trucks arrived we faced a fireline of about 3-4 miles, that we could see. There was a discussion with the owner of the ranch, and back and forth over the radio as I pleaded with our chief for more trucks. He agreed and 7 more were dispatched to us. Meanwhile, John and another rancher began a backfire on the other side of the creek against a road, in case it jumped. By this time, the fire was running nearly 2 miles wide at the head fire. The owner wanted the fire stopped at a 10 foot wide mowed path across a mile of pasture, because he was in a government program to preserve bird habitat. This was impossible, and I told him that with as much diplomacy as possible. He did not want any back fires set either...however the two other ranchers went about setting them all the same. Our first two trucks tried a frontal attack on a fire coming down the hill toward a tank battery, after only 10 minutes of trying to plow up the steep hill in mud and rock I called back to the boss that the situation was impossible running head on into it. 3 trucks came from the far south end and worked the east side, our tanker set up at the tank batteries we were trying to protect to nurse everyone. The two trucks we brought and 3 others from neighboring divisions worked the line from the tank battery to the north backfire, perhaps a mile and a half long, or 2 miles. As the afternoon wore on, what had appeared to be an impossible situation gradually was brought under control, 8 attack rigs, one tanker, and 2 pickups with water tanks and pumps provided by the owner, 22 volunteer firemen and 8 ranchers were able to move to the west fire line by about 5pm and to get it controlled and out by 6pm. We lost no buildings(to be fair, there were just a few outbuildings in the area), no oil tanks(there were lots of them) and no stock. Just a rough guess was maybe 2000-3000 acres burned. It all would have burned anyway(we even managed to save most of the bird grass), just in a more controlled fashion. Had it gone past the backfire point, it probably would have put a house or two in danger, and many more oil fields, and gone perhaps another 5-8 miles.
I didn't have my camera, but half way through the afternoon managed to borrow one. I took some decent pics, just none of the main action. Eventually I will get them downloaded and post a few.