Aldons Huxley

      In the first part of this series I touched on many realities that confront us as a people concerning the fires and the responses to the catastrophic occurrences that we have had in the past year.

     To recap, our rural fire services are getting older, fewer, and in poorer health.  The equipment that is ideally needed is expensive and many departments have no choice but to fabricate their own equipment.  It is also a no win when standards from the NFPA and other rule setting organizations, have no input into the needs of the rural firefighter.

     The behind the scenes story of a major fire is not apparent to the general public.  And officials in places that have not experienced a catastrophic wildfire sometimes ignore the needs of public safety because the competition for the tax dollar is so great.

     The story of the Anderson Creek Fire in Oklahoma and Kansas was the fire and it’s effects and aftermath.  The same with the Starbuck Fire and the string of fires from Reno County to Southwest Kansas, central Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado.  The fires in 2017 have been magnified from the Anderson Creek Fire in terms of devastation.

     What is the back story?  If you had come to Medicine Lodge during the month or more of the Anderson Creek Fire, and went to the Annex building at the courthouse (which had opened just one week before the fire) you would have seen over 50 people working all of the logistics of the fire.  By logistics I mean the fire incident command structure, planning, financing, coordinating incoming and out going units, air traffic control, answering the phones and making the calls for information, health, safety, inter governmental coordination, and major decision making.

     It is all rather mind boggling.  People from outside coordination of task forces, regional, state, federal, military, food, sleeping, and much more were working 12 hour shifts keeping things together.  In Barber County both radio towers were burnt over and communications was a major problem.  Cell service was spotty and units could only rely on line of sight radio communication for several hours.  Two Kansas owned mobile radio towers and a bank of portable radios was rushed in.  The normal fact of radio frequencies being different from department to department made common communication between sectors and control was at best, complicated.

     So were we ready for the Starbuck fire to occur?  Yes and no.  Individual fire departments, dispatch units, law enforcement, EMS, regional response command were ready because of last years experience.  Was the state resources ready?  I would say about the same.  But this time there were multiple major incidents all over the state.

     The Anderson Creek Fire cost 1.7 million dollars in 2016.  This amount of money came entirely from the general fund.  This was a major impact on the operations of Barber County during the last year.  The FEMA grant money to offset a lot of the expense only came into the bank the week that all the 2017 fires started.  The Emergency Manager had a goal of having all warrants (checks) written by Friday of that week.  This money will come as a god-send for all of the 130 fire departments, and other agencies that sent help.  It will be a year before the latest fires FEMA money will be coming.

     Also all of the ranchers who are waiting for the NRCS money for fence repair from 2016 has still not come in.  Which means that the $10,000 per 1/2 mile cost is still out of pocket with no help yet.  We have a few ranchers who have now had another major fence loss that will need to build more fence.

     The problems that the rural fire service has is not a new problem, it is only that the major fires have brought the dilemmas to a new focus.  One TV News station has done a report in the last year on the problems of the rural fire service, but that report is over and the news goes on to other stories.

     The Legislature is once again considering joining a multi state fire pact.  This has been considered several times before and not passed.  With the actual problems happening it has a chance to finally be passed and another degree of cooperation can be put in place that will get resources moving faster than in the past.

     Will we learn and will we act?  This will be in part 3.

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