Official urges voluntary burn ban
Chuck Magaha, a volunteer firefighter who also is director of the county's emergency management office, is pleading with county residents.
"Do not burn. Period. Take it upon yourself to not do that," Magaha said Monday, several days after many of the county's firefighters ran from grass fire to grass fire.
¢ At the grass fire at 198th Street and U.S. Highway 24-40 on Thursday:
¢ 57 firefighters responded, along with 11 grass rigs, two pumpers and three tankers.
¢ Firefighters used 18,000 gallons of water.
¢ Nine departments answered the call: Stranger, Fairmount, Delaware, Tonganoxie, Reno, Alexandria and Sherman township fire departments, along with Tonganoxie city and Bonner Springs.
And while fire departments across the county are refusing to issue burn permits, it remains legal for residents outside cities to burn trash in containers.
But fire chiefs warn that's extremely dangerous.
On Thursday afternoon, at least two grass fires were ignited by an everyday activity in the country: burning trash.
The first call came in about 3 p.m. Thursday southeast of 222nd Street and Parallel Road.
"It was a dump fire on the back of the property that spread into the grass and then onto a Christmas tree farm," said Tom Pulkrabek, chief of Tonganoxie Township Fire Department.
Firefighters worked to knock the fire down as it skittered through dead trees and brush. Firefighters then dumped foam from a large tanker truck on a fire smoldering in a dump area on the property, Pulkrabek said.
"I'm sure he was back there burning," Pulkrabek said about the fire's cause. "People need to stop."
As he and other firefighters were spraying foam on the dump, Pulkrabek heard another call on his radio. He listened.
"I heard the tone in the guys' voices who were rolling in to 198th and State, and I told them, I'm leaving, I'm coming," Pulkrabek said.
Another fire -- much bigger than the one Pulkrabek had responded to on Parallel -- was sending flames 30 feet into the air, just south of busy U.S. Highway 24-40.
"In this case, we do think it started near a trash barrel," said Ben Hayes, Stranger Township fire chief.
Before it was all over, 57 firefighters had gone through 18,000 gallons of water to extinguish the blaze, which covered about 30 acres.
"Part of what happened was it got into that area in the corner of 198th and State that has a lot of cedar trees," Hayes said. "If you've ever seen a cedar tree burn, those things just about explode. That, and thick underbrush, really contributed to significant problems."
Compounding firefighters' problems was extreme heat. Temperatures were above 105 degrees.
"It was tough," Hayes said. "And I was surprised that we didn't have more folks have a problem."
Only one firefighter was treated for dehydration, Hayes said, crediting the work of David Schafer of his department who was in command at the fire scene.
"He worked hard to make sure folks kept hydrated," Hayes said.
Both Hayes and Pulkrabek believe a blanket ban on outdoor burning in Leavenworth County is in order.
"I think the county commission needs to do an all-out burning ban until we get a couple of inches of rain," Pulkrabek said. "It's just going to keep getting worse. People are just not smart enough not to burn trash."
And while Magaha thinks a ban on outdoor burning is in order -- he believes a commission-ordered ban is fraught with problems.
If someone disobeys such a ban, their neighbors would call the fire department.
"Then we'd have fire departments running just for a puff of smoke," Magaha said. "It starts getting ridiculous."
And while Magaha asks that no one burns, he wants people who decide to burn to take precautions.
"They need to be there with water and they shouldn't leave it until the last ember is out," he said. "We're talking in a trash barrel."
And even though grass may appear to be dead and isn't growing much, Magaha asked that Leavenworth County residents cut it as short as possible, to decrease the likelihood of fire.
"A shrub looks right now like it's green, but it's not," he said. "It's a tinder box. They're just waiting for a match or a cigarette. CRP grasses is a tinder box. The brome fields are tinder boxes. Fire right now is burning like gasoline."