Marion County volunteer firefighters got more than they bargained for this past week, as crews from around the county were called out 15 times to tackle fires that scorched fields and incinerated outbuildings.
Monday was a long day for Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee. He was on call for ambulance duty when a field fire was reported east of Lehigh. Hillsboro firefighters were joined by volunteers from Lehigh, Durham, and Canton.
As Steketee directed the response to the fire, which ignited from embers of a controlled burn done two weeks ago, a grass fire ignited south of Hillsboro, with Goessel fire department taking the call. Once the Lehigh fire was mostly extinguished, Steketee and others headed south to join forces with Goessel.
Both fires appeared to be out, but Steketee returned to the second at around 9:30 p.m, and again around 3 a.m. Tuesday to deal with flare ups.
“When I left at 10 at night, it was dark out, and embers would have been clearly visible,” Steketee said. “I looked but didn’t see any.”
Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier said his department has been “pretty busy.”
“We’ve been out several times,” Regnier said. “It’s just so dry that controlled burns are getting away from people because of it.”
“We’ve been called out several times in the past month,” Peabody Fire Chief Mark Penner said. “During situations like this, most of our people are at a stage of heightened awareness. They know prairie fires can get out of hand quickly.”
Not all fires have started as controlled burns that flared out of control. Tampa firefighters responded to a grass fire started by sparks from a cutting torch. A call from a passerby who saw a man trying to put out a barn fire with a hose sent Goessel on a long run.
But grass and field fires are common this time of year.
“They’re probably about average,” Steketee said. “Nobody has a crystal ball to say in a couple of days there’s going to be a big wind that will stir up some embers.”
Volunteer fire departments typically respond with whomever they can get, and it’s not unusual for a chief to request another department to assist. The practice is referred to as mutual aid.
“We’re fortunate here in Hillsboro that a good number of the firefighters are also city employees, so I can usually count on them for a daytime fire,” Steketee said.
Penner said when a call comes into Peabody, his volunteers know how to read the situation.
“Everybody understands that if dangerous conditions exist they need to be ready,” Penner said. “They know when they are needed. If there’s a question about it some may hang back at the station and see how it goes. They wait to see if another truck will be needed. If there’s a call for mutual aid, they just load up and go.”
Steketee said departments prefer fires they can handle on their own, but don’t want to wait too long to call in assistance when property is in danger.
In an ideal situation, firefighters have strategies they’ve been trained to use to effectively battle fires. However, fires are rarely ideal.
“Every one is somewhat different,” Regnier said, mentioning terrain and ground cover as factors that alter his approach.
“When you get in the real world and you get on scene, you have to adjust most of the time,” Steketee said. “Usually, I listen to my firemen.”
Some people who start controlled burns don’t have adequate equipment available in case it starts to get away from them.
“It is frustrating when someone is doing a controlled burn and they have no way of controlling it,” Steketee said. “Of course we’ll come, but that’s a little frustrating. Especially when it’s this dry and windy, I’d like people to use an extra measure of common sense.”