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A dozen fire departments battle to contain 3-county prairie inferno

Staff writer

A massive grassfire that sparked near the northeastern border of Marion County raged approximately 17 hours on Monday and spread about four miles into two neighboring counties.

At 1:49 a.m., Lost Springs volunteer fire department responded to a report of a grass fire spotted one mile east of US-77 on 360th Rd.

Fire chief Brad Pagenkopf was on that call. He said the blaze originated near a hedge row near an old abandoned farmstead, where it quickly spread to trees and consumed derelict buildings.

The need for assistance was immediately apparent.

Lincolnville fire department was paged once Lost Springs firefighters arrived on scene, and Ramona and Woodbine were paged soon thereafter.

Lincolnville fire chief Lester Kaiser said, “It was a hard fire. Every time we got it knocked back down, the wind would blow and it would rekindle.”

The fire moved rapidly through thick, dry grass, spurred on by high winds. Pagenkopf said emergency management director Randy Frank clocked wind speeds as high as 40 mph on scene.

“To put the flames in perspective, imagine a tumbleweed rolling along, only it’s on fire,” Pagenkopf said. “The fire was moved really fast.”

Hills, ravines, unfamiliar rough terrain, and the dark of night further complicated the initial fight. Pagenkopf said crews were “driving blind” at times.

“At first we weren’t really sure where some of the gates were in the fence lines,” Kaiser said. “We had to cut through some.”

Smoke also caused problems for firefighter problems as they became covered in ash.

“The smoke made it very difficult, the fire would flare-up behind us and smoke would blow back on us,” Pagenkopf said. “The ash and soot made it impossible to see at times.”

Around midmorning, Lincolnville firefighters were released, only to be called back shortly thereafter to assist with the rekindled blaze.

“It was a hard fire,” Kaiser said. “The fuel load was unreal.”

As the wind-driven fire moved north, firefighters from White City, Tampa, Burdick, Herington, Abilene, Hope, and Fort Riley, as well as other departments, were paged to combat the fire.

Pagenkopf said 12 fire departments responded to the fire. He estimated about four firefighters per crew.

He was in charge of the southern command post. There was a second command post on the fire’s northern side.

“At one point I heard that crews on the northern end of the fire had to evacuate a residence,” Pagenkopf said. “I am quite certain they reallocated resources to protect that residence.”

Kaiser noted some communication difficulties between departments because of different radio frequencies each county uses.

Pagenkopf said there were three flare-ups throughout the day.

“It was like being on three different fire calls,” Pagenkopf said. “You think it’s out then you have to start all over again, each time.”

Flare-ups originated from the original site of the fire, he said.

“There were embers in the hedgerow trees,” Pagenkopf said. “The wind kept blowing them back into the grass.”

Multiple water refills for tankers, brush trucks, and other equipment were ordered throughout the 17-hour fire.

At one point, crews organized a line of four fire trucks that drove parallel to the fire, showering flames with water mixed with a foam agent.

Pagenkopf said the foam doubles the effectiveness of water, and creates a lathery effect when sprayed.

There were no injuries during the extended blaze, but county firefighters were required to visit Tampa ambulance for rehabilitation, where they were checked and fluids replenished to stave off exhaustion and dehydration.

To keep strength up, firefighters also were fed several meals from various community members.

“With a fire of that magnitude that burned for that amount of time, we’re fortunate there were no injuries,” Kaiser said. “All the volunteers did an excellent job.”

The fire was finally extinguished around 5 p.m.

“There were a lot of dedicated people who helped put out this fire. Everyone and anyone who helped with it should know they are greatly appreciated,” Pagenkopf said.

Last modified Oct. 21, 2015

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