Wildfire damage continues to grow

Wildfire damage continues to grow

10 March 2017

published by http://www.salina.com

USA — TOPEKA — The damage wrought by grass fires has continued to grow, topping more than 700,000 scorched acres of land, but as of Friday, fire crews had gained the upper hand over most of the blazes.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Department of Agriculture said it has been working with the state’s congressional delegation and with other affected states to expedite assistance from the federal government.

The office of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Roberts met Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday to brief him on the disaster.

“We have also been in touch with USDA in regards to assistance that may be available to farmers and ranchers in the impacted counties that have suffered losses,” Roberts was quoted in an email from his spokeswoman. “I am committed to making sure assistance programs will be available.”

On Friday, he visited Englewood and Ashland in hard-hit Clark County, along the border with Oklahoma.

The office of Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said Marshall met Friday with USDA Farm Service Agency staff.

A day earlier, Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order that clears the way for transporting large amounts of hay and other feed and materials for immediate assistance. The order waived certain transportation regulations for the effort. Brownback declared a state of disaster emergency last Sunday.

The Associated Press has reported six deaths in three of the four states experiencing grass fires, including one in Kansas.

The other deaths were in Texas and Oklahoma.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management has said it could take weeks to determine the full extent of devastation from the fires reported in nearly two dozen counties since last weekend, but the latest information from local authorities across the state points to about 712,000 burned acres of land.

The division has not released initial tallies or estimates regarding the number of livestock lost. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is giving ranchers guidance on disposing their dead animals.

Heather Lansdowne, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said her agency is working with other states as they seek to facilitate federal assistance. Lansdowne said the agency hasn’t begun to determine the economic impact of the crisis, as efforts to contain the fires are ongoing.

Clark and neighboring Comanche County alone saw more than 500,000 acres go up in flames. According to Kansas Emergency Management, this constitutes the most widespread single fire on record in Kansas, coming on the heels of a record set last year, when more than 310,000 acres burned in Barber and Comanche counties.

The agency said Friday that most of the state’s grass fires are now under control, but firefighting crews are still working to contain blazes in Clark, Comanche, Ellis, Reno and Rooks counties. Those fires are mostly or almost entirely contained.

Outside assistance

This week saw assistance for the firefighting effort come from far and wide.

Kansas National Guard, U.S. Forestry Service and U.S. Army Reserve helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dumped more than 260,000 gallons of water on the flames. Two Kansas National Guard Black Hawk Helicopters remain stationed in Clark County. The Kansas Highway Patrol has been surveying burned areas from the air.

Emergency responders traveled from counties around the state to help.

Shawnee Heights Fire District Battalion Chief Brian Aeschliman and three other Shawnee Heights firefighters assisted in Reno County.

Aeschliman said the flames were made worse by high winds. He described shrubs and evergreens serving as easy fuel for fast-moving fires.

“We’re talking about 20-foot trees with flames 50 feet in the air,” he said. “That really extends the fire.”

On Tuesday, Aeschliman led a division that looked for any missed fires and stamped out flare-ups.

“We spent a lot of the day driving from one hotspot to the next,” he said.

Nelson Casteel, of Shawnee County Emergency Management, led a communication unit from Sunday through Wednesday in Hutchinson, facilitating communication among firefighters and other emergency workers while keeping channels open for local emergency calls, too.

“That’s one thing people sometimes forget,” Casteel said. “There’s still the daily calls — the heart attacks and strokes and other calls.”

State officials are cautioning that dry weather conditions mean a continued risk for grass fires in Kansas.

“The best practice under current conditions is to refrain from burning anything outdoors,” the emergency management division said in a news release urging Kansans who are considering any burning to contact their local sheriff’s office or emergency management agency first for information on whether it is currently permitted in their area.

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