Volunteers help maintain uncontrolled brush fires in Riley County, offer fire prevention advice

Flames from a prescribed fire lick the side of K-13 highway. (Sean Schaper | Collegian Media Group)

Earlier this month, volunteers of Riley County Fire District No. 1 kept busy with several brush fires. Some who regularly battle the flames offer their advice on fire prevention for Manhattan residents.

Riley County Emergency Director Russel Stukey said for a homeowner, keeping yards maintained and mowed can help prevent wildfire damage.

“Keep thick underbrush trimmed back from the house several feet, like a minimum of 50 feet, if not farther,” Stukey said. “The farther back you keep the trees and brush and combustible material, the better off you are.”

An unmaintained lawn could allow any nearby fire to continue its path and ultimately lead to structure fires.

State forester Jason Hartman said those now wanting to do a prescribed burn should have started planning in the fall. Having good firebreaks is one of the most important things to have, Hartman said.

Those wanting to burn typically create a firebreak between the home and the burn area. The firebreak gaps combustible material like vegetation to the brush- or wildfire and acts as a barrier to slow or stop its progress.

However, controlled fires can get out of hand in an instant.

Stukey said the department gets calls for fires that take five minutes to put out, while others take days to extinguish or neutralize.

“Typically if we only have one fire to deal with, we have enough resources with our own fire district to handle it,” Stukey said. “Usually when we have to call for help, it’s either one of a couple of things. Either it’s just an extra-large fire or we are dealing with multiple fires at once at multiple locations.”

A call for help is exactly what happened earlier this month.

“While crews were battling the fire on Condray Road, a call came in for another brush fire, this one on 18055 Bjorling Rd,” Alice Massimi, county public information officer, said in a news release on April 5. “Crews were rerouted to this fire, and Olsburg Fire Department in Pottawattamie County assisted. Roughly 20 acres were affected. … Later in the afternoon, another fire was reported in northern Riley County. Knowing that Riley County Fire services were busy with the other fires, Marshall County Fire services responded.”

Riley County Fire District No. 1 has only a few paid staff positions. Over 120 members of the fire department are volunteers. Strapped with pagers and willingness to help the community, the volunteers are also one call away.

“Our volunteers come from many walks of life. They’re students at local colleges, they are military personnel, they are everything from … farmers and mechanics,” Stukey said.

Cole Lanning, junior in aeronautical technology, volunteers for Consolidated Fire District No. 1 in Douglas County and is no stranger to battling wildfires.

“When it comes to wildfire response, we use brush trucks and UTVs with gas-powered pumps to put them out,” Lanning said. “We also use hand tools and sometimes even leaf blowers to control small ones. In my first year, we had 29 fires, I think, altogether. This year just in a six-day span we had 67 fires — the busiest day being 17 fires.”

He said that is when support is usually needed.

“It’s not uncommon for us to call in support from cities like Olathe for fires,” Lanning said. “What usually happens is units from all around come to our station, and it is used as the command center. It can also happen the other way around where we get pulled to places like Hutchison or Dodge City like three hours away for the task force.”

Lanning said volunteering is vital for the job and is a great way to build experience for becoming a career fireman. He plans to continue volunteering for his department even after he becomes full-time.

My name is Sean Schaper, and I'm the news editor for the Collegian. I’m a junior in journalism with a secondary focus in film studies. I grew up right outside of Kansas City in Leawood, Kansas. As a first-generation K-Stater, I look forward to leaving behind accurate coverage for the current and future Wildcat community.