New documentary chronicles March wildfires across Midwest ranchland

A new documentary published online last week chronicles the terror and heartbreak ranchers faced in areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas when wind-swept fires tore through their communities in March.

Titled “Fire in the Heartland,” the 16-minute film includes interviews with fire personnel and ranchers about the firestorm that ripped through the prairie lands. The video is the latest enterprise work to come out of the disaster — this New York Times piece also detailed some of the tragedy.

And here’s an excerpt about the fire from Climate.gov.

The wildfires tore through cattle country, feasting on grasses made dry by long-term drought and exacerbated by recent warm weather.  Once the fires were started, strong winds whipped the flames, helping them spread more rapidly. According to Reuters, a wildfire in Texas during the beginning of March moved at speeds up to 70mph as it raced across the Texas Panhandle. By the third week of March, the fires had killed at least seven people—not to mention thousands of livestock—and burned more than 2 million acres.

The differences between fighting wildfires in Oklahoma and Kansas

Above: A view of the wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas as seen from a NASA satellite on March 7, 2017. The red areas represent heat.

In some areas of the United States crossing over a state line can bring a person into a completely different wildfire suppression structure. I first noticed the difference between Oklahoma and Kansas while attempting to gather current information about the fires that broke out in both states during very windy Red Flag Warning conditions that began on March 6, 2017. Many fires broke out in both states but the largest became an interstate emergency when several fires burned together straddling the Kansas/Oklahoma border blackening over 700,000 acres.

The larger firefighting organization in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Forestry Services (OFS), was able to provide much more information to the public about the ongoing situation than the smaller agency in Kansas, the Kansas Forest Service (KSF).

A recent article by Oliver Morrison of the Tribune News Service pointed out one of the differences between the two agencies:

Oklahoma had to learn the hard way that Kansas fights fires unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., according to George Geissler, the director of the Oklahoma Forest Service.

Instead of reaching out to a single Kansas agency during the Anderson Creek fire last year — which burned nearly 400,000 acres near Medicine Lodge — Oklahoma had to reach out separately to each Kansas county impacted by the fire. Each county gave the fire a different name, Geissler said, and often provided “wildly different” reports about how much damage the fire had done.

So before this year’s fire season kicked off, Geissler took several of his 80 full-time staff members to meet with all five fire people at the Kansas Forest Service responsible for coordinating the state’s response to wildfires. They shared information about how each state handles wildfires.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Wichita Eagle:

The state’s forest service is the smallest and lowest funded of any in the country – which puts people and property in danger.

Consider the difference in resources and responses between Kansas and Oklahoma:
–The Kansas Forest Service budget in 2016 was about $3 million, with $1 million dedicated to fire service; Oklahoma’s budget was $15 million, with $8 million for fire service.
–The Kansas Forest Service has three trucks and four employees dedicated to firefighting and fire prevention; Oklahoma has 47 fire engines, 47 bulldozers and 84 firefighters.
–On March 6, when the wildfire started, Oklahoma had a plane in the air by 3 p.m. to help firefighters. It was two more days before Kansas could get a rented plane to help in Clark County, after most of the county had burned.

Mr. Morrison reported that “Oklahoma’s total state firefighting budget is about $15 million”.

Kansas budgeted $3,250,985 for the KFS in 2016. Of that total, only 10 percent, or $328,673, came from the state’s general fund, while another $248,384 was generated by technical assistance fees and tree sales. The rest was provided by the federal government (47 percent, or $1,538,660) and state and federal grants (35 percent, or $1,143,268).

In recent years Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, backed by the legislature, has cut taxes in the state.

The New York Times reported on February 22:

Yet Kansas has struggled in the aftermath of the tax reductions, and the state has been rattled by debates about paying for public education and social services. This month, S&P Global Ratings issued a “negative” outlook for its credit rating for Kansas, where the economic growth that Mr. Brownback thought the tax cuts would produce has not materialized. Last summer, S&P downgraded Kansas’ credit rating, to AA-.

It is very likely that the KFS will see even smaller budgets in coming years if the new administration in Washington implements their expressed desire to impose large spending cuts in the federal budget. The President’s proposal is to cut the U.S. Forest Service’s “Payments to State Funds” by 75 percent. The 82 percent provided to the KFS by the feds and grants could be much smaller in the coming years.

But Oklahoma has its own budget worries, with a 10.6 percent cut in funding to the OFS’ umbrella agency, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry after a $1.3 billion state budget shortfall due largely to low energy prices. One of the immediate effects is the closure of four OFS offices.

Kansas has been one of a handful of states that have not become members of interstate wildland fire compacts that provide the means for its member states and provinces to cope with fires that might be beyond the capabilities of a single member. But after two years in a row that saw huge fires burning in the state the legislature passed a bill last week that allows them to become a member of a compact. The one they join could be the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact comprised of six states and one Canadian province.

In Mr. Morrison’s article he pointed out an issue related to ordering resources for an ongoing fire in Kansas:

During the massive wildfires on March 6, the emergency managers at the state level were using a different system than the emergency managers at the county level, which was a different system than the state Forest Service was using, according to Ross Hauck, who attended the meeting for the Forest Service.

“So the guys in the state emergency operations center were sometimes ordering the same people,” Hauck said.

Stories from the Oklahoma fire line

The three fires that started Monday March 6 during a wind event in Oklahoma and Kansas were managed as the NW Oklahoma Complex of Fires and burned over 833,941 acres.

The men in these two videos tell a part of the story as they saw it during the first couple of days. The videos were acquired and posted on the Oklahoma Forestry Services Facebook page by the Southern Area Red Team.

First, is Eric Bond of Knowles, Oklahoma.


Below is a transcript of the video above:

I’m Eric Bond. I’m on the Gate Volunteer Fire Department (18 years). We got paged out Monday the 6th, I believe, at noon or eleven. Something like that, and we went to Knowles and got a one ton brush rig and went to the fire as quick as I could and I was hearing on the radio it was already twenty miles ahead of us. We were trying to save some houses down in there. And my wife had called and wanted to know what she could do. I told her to get one of my boys out of school and to move some cows out of the river. We were trying to save some houses down in there. It was going right down the Cimarron River. And we went over there after a couple of tanks of water, and fought it off a neighbor’s house.

And north of us was a wall of fire but it was going east at the time. And I called my son and asked him he got out of there. And he said “yeah he did” but my wife was still down there trying to get two more cows. And about then the wind changed and that thing came down through there, down river, forty feet high. I told the guy with me “I have to go down there but you don’t have to, you ought to get out.” He said “no, I’m in”! So we went and it turned out there were like six people down there trying to get those cows. And the fire kind of over ran us. We kind of struggled a little getting out of there.

We got through my pasture to the neighbor’s other house and everything there was on fire except the house. And I told everybody to stay in the road because you know they won’t burn up in the road if the house catches on fire. And we just kind of kept it off that house. And another truck showed up eventually, and I don’t know he was but we left him there to watch that house and we went to my house.

And in the meantime, I heard my house burned down. And when we got where we could see it, it did look like it had. But when we got up there the house was ok, but everything else around it burned. All my machinery and trailers, and pretty well everything there, four out buildings, skid loaders, and…pretty well everything there. But the house was ok. And I talked to another guy on our department a while ago and there had been a truck up there. He didn’t know who it was before we got there, but it was there at one time before we got there.

We ended up burning nearly every square foot four miles north. We came out better than some. We lost some cows and some calves (34 cows and calves). The horses are singed a little, but they’re ok.

[How long were you out?] Oh, it was three days from the time they paged until I took my clothes off. And I was sure glad seeing everyone else showing up and kind of get a break, and see what’s left. I had another place in Harper County, and it burnt a little, a hay shed was burnt, 60 bales of hay, and a tractor. I’m pretty fortunate it didn’t burn near all that place.

Next is Charlie Starbuck, chief of the Slapout Fire Department. The largest of the three fires is named after him because he reported it.

Information about how to donate to organizations that are helping the victims of the fires. And here.

Update on wildfires in Oklahoma and Kansas

Above: Satellite data from March 8 shows that there was much less heat detected by the satellite (the red dots) on the fires in the tri-state area of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the panhandle of Texas than in previous days.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported on Wednesday that the NW Oklahoma Complex of Fires had significant growth during the previous 24 hours. The three fires in that complex are:

  • Starbuck (Beaver and Harper County in Oklahoma, plus, in Kansas, Meade, Comanche, Clark Counties) – 715,484 acres total in Oklahoma and Kansas;
  • Selman (Harper and Woodward County, Oklahoma) – 47,289 acres; and,
  • 283 Fire (Harper County, Oklahoma) – 71,168 acres

An Oklahoma Forest Service Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT) has been assigned to the fires but an order has been placed for a Type 1 IMT, which is the largest and most highly qualified type of IMT.

More moderate weather conditions across the region on Thursday should slow the spread of the wildfires, with wind speeds in many areas that are less than 10 mph. However the relative humidities are in the teens in the western areas of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the northern panhandle of Texas.

Through the FEMA Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) approved for the Northwest Oklahoma Complex of fires, local fire departments and other response agencies may be eligible for reimbursements for costs associated with emergency protective measures and firefighting activities.

The video, uploaded March 9, shows the view from an airliner of one of the fires in the Oklahoma/Kansas border area.