HUTCHINSON, Kan. (KSNW) — From California to Nevada and Idaho, wildfires are raging in the west. Crews from right here in Kansas are helping battle those blazes.
A group from the Hutchinson Fire Department returned Thursday night to Hutchinson. The four-man crew said it’s a trip that helped them learn more about fighting fires. In addition, they believe the experience will help them fight fires here in Kansas.
Firefighter Cole Inghram and Brent Fisher were the eyes in the sky for the Stateline Complex Fire.
“We were able to get up on a peak lookout tower that was at 64,000 feet and be able to look down on the fire behavior and watch weather, take observations, give them trends on what the fire had been doing and where it progressed to,” said Inghram. “We’re able to communicate with everybody on the ground and tell them what we were seeing, give them a heads up and give predictions as to what the fire might do.”
Inghram said the fire conditions were extreme for this time of year, as they would normally fire up mid-August. However, he said the fire made a giant run on one of the last evenings they were there.
“Fisher and I were lookouts that evening, and we saw the fire behavior was intense,” he said. “We kind of just preloaded everybody that we could see some heavy activity, and it picked up.”
Inghram said crews put up a couple of spot fires to slow it down, but the fires ended up growing together, creating a firestorm, moving fast throughout the evening.
“That happened in the late hours in early morning people that had heavy equipment down on the highway, they had to go in, wake up, try to pick up that equipment before the fire overtook it,” he said. “That was one of the closest calls. I’ve necessarily been on where the fire does something that’s somewhat completely unexpected.”
Fisher said getting to learn more about the terrain helps sharpen their skills.
“What you start seeing with the steep slopes is boulders and rocks and dead trees that had burned and trees falling over, and the road is a mess, and every hour on the hour, they’re using heavy equipment to try and prepare for that,” said Fisher. “Being able to bring that back home is huge for the type of fires we have here in this immediate area.”
Jacob Ice and Kyle Graves were on the ground, ensuring the fire wouldn’t jump the highway.
“Seeing the topography and seeing, I mean, just the size difference of, you know, a hill here is not a hill there, you know you got mountains that you have to climb,” said Ice.
Ice said they were there to be eyes for the fire behavior and help spray out logs. The crew even helped cut down trees for a helicopter to land because a firefighter needed to be hospitalized.
They said the experience teaches them to work on their preparation skills before a big fire hits. It also taught them about effectively communicating with dozens of agencies to get the job done faster.
“The relationships we built and the people we saw, it’s those that we’ll think about often, and we just want to try to remember them and do the best by them as best as we can,” said Inghram.
The Hutchinson Fire Department sent a second crew who just made it to Idaho Thursday. The department may also send out a third crew if the fires are still burning in a few weeks.
Experts said they will likely be needed with the state in the middle of fire season.