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Heat takes toll on county

100-degree weather blamed for seven field fires, severe damage to corn crop

Staff writer

Relentless, blistering heat and drought are exacting an increasingly costly toll on Marion County — a toll being paid both in human terms and in economic terms.

Heat and lack of rain sent firefighters from Marion, Hillsboro, Tampa, and Ramona into burning fields six times within four hours Monday. The calls continued Tuesday morning.

Overheated firefighters, tended to by emergency medical technicians dispatched with them, battled flames and dehydration for, in some cases, two to four consecutive hours with little if any recovery time in between.

The real damage, however, was not the dry grass and trees set ablaze by swathers, balers, and intentional wheat stubble fires that got out of control in hot, dry conditions.

“I’m afraid this week we’re really hurting ourselves a lot,” extension agent Rickey Roberts said Tuesday.

Clifford Hett, who with his brother farms one of the fields Marion firefighters were dispatched to not once but twice on Monday, knows this only too well.

While his nephew, Don, ran through a hay field at 170th and Wagonwheel Roads, kicking apart smoldering piles of grass a swather had ignited, Clifford stopped to examine the corn the Hetts are growing in an adjoining field.

“We made 100 bushel on this field last year,” he said, shaking his head as he pulled the husk off an ear that more resembled the stereotypically toothless mouth of a homeless derelict than a healthy ear of corn. “If we don’t get rain soon, I don’t know what we’ll get this year.”

The yield on somewhat rocky ground such as the Hetts’ probably will be more like 40 to 50 bushels, Roberts estimated, and that’s better than in some areas of the county, which have had even less rain.

Drought conditions

It’s not just the lack of rain that is stressing the crop, however.

As of last week, the entire county had been classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint project of the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, as being in the throes of moderate drought.

The southwestern corner, near Goessel, was classified in severe drought. Extreme drought now extends to within only a few miles of there, affecting an area generally south and west of Newton. Exceptional drought, the most severe category, is creeping across the southern border of the state.

“We have to make our hay, so to speak, moisture-wise in March, April, and May,” Roberts said. “This year, that didn’t happen. You’re playing a game of Russian roulette when you’re betting on getting your rain in July and August.

“If we can catch a rain this week, we might do OK. But another big problem is the heat. Nighttime temperatures in the 90s mean the plant isn’t getting much of an opportunity to recover.”

The corn Hett examined is what Roberts would expect to see with a protracted period of 100-degree weather such as the one the county currently is enduring.

“Corn won’t pollinate properly when it’s this hot,” he said. “Sometimes the pollination just doesn’t work well. You get silk and heads, but the kernels themselves don’t develop.”

Record heat

With the temperature at Marion Reservoir, typically somewhat cooler than the rest of the county, reaching 108 on Sunday, 101 on Monday, and 100 on Tuesday, the county has had 18 or 19 hundred-degree days this year. A typical year has 11, Roberts said.

The record in recent years was 19 hundred-degree days in 2003, Roberts said.

“We’ll blow by that this week,” he quickly added. “By the time we get done with August, who knows? It sure looks like we’re going to set some records.”

The problem is exaggerated by an increasing number of producers planting corn instead of wheat or milo.

“On the high-quality bottom land, the corn will still be decent — maybe not 100 bushels, which is pretty darned good corn,” he said. “It’s a little early to be talking yield, but on the upland farm ground, we’re probably looking at 40 to 50.”

Producers saw near-record crops and prices for corn in recent years and gambled on it this year on land normally used for other crops.

“Corn’s a high-risk, high-reward crop,” Roberts said. “You give this kind of weather to corn and it’ll say, ‘Screw you. I’m done.’ Give the same thing to wheat and it’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll play this game. What’ll we do next?’ Wheat’s a crop that you can darned near kill — and we almost did this year — and it’ll still come through.”

He said milo and soybeans also had more tolerance than corn.

Field fires

The fires were merely a harbinger — exhausting to firefighters but not damaging to crops or equipment.

“It’s a factor of just heat and dry,” Roberts said. “You’re dealing with a lot of moving parts and a lot of heat and a lot of really dry matter. It isn’t so much the hay itself. It’s the dry grass.”

Very little is needed to ignite the grass. In the case of Clifford Hetts’ farm, a swather blade hitting rocky soil was all it took Monday.

“We had the same thing happen two other times this past week,” Hett said, lugging a drained fire extinguisher off his and his brother’s swather. “The other two times we were able to put it out with this. But today, with all the heat, it was just too much.”

Marion firefighters were dispatched to the Hett farm twice Monday, at 1:46 and again at 2:34 p.m., just five minutes after returning to their station.

Six Marion firefighters responded to these calls and two others Monday, on Bluestem Road a mile north of K-150 and on 210th Road east of Zebulon Road.

“They just barely made it home and got to sit down when the next calls came in,” said Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier, who personally responded to the first of the four calls. Marion firefighters were called out again to another hay fire Tuesday.

“It takes its toll after a while,” Regnier said. “You’ve got to make sure you drink. That’s what we have to be careful to do.”

Marion ambulance responded along with the firefighters and provided them welcome drinking water at the scene.

Hillsboro firefighters appeared to handle the most serious of the calls Tuesday, a controlled burn at 240th and Diamond roads that got out of control. Firefighters arrived at that blaze at 2:46 p.m. and the last of them were not back in their station until 5:53 p.m.

Ramona and Tampa firefighters also were summoned to a fire caused by a swather at 3:24 p.m. and briefly had to halt traffic on nearby railroad tracks while they battled the blaze.

See the new “Emergency Dispatches” listing on this week’s Docket page for more details.

Last modified July 13, 2011

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