4-alarm grass fire whips up a scare
Sheriff Jeff Soyez radioed dispatchers, his urgency crystal-clear despite strong winds whipping flames in the background.
“Do we have an EMS unit here close?” he said. “I need an EMS unit at 170th and 77 highway.”
For a few tense moments Friday, Soyez and other responders feared the worst about Marion fire chief Chris Killough as a four-alarm grass fire jumped US-77.
Killough was supervising firefighters from a command vehicle in the middle of the two-mile-long fire south of 170th Rd. when a firefighter radioed shortly after 4 p.m.:
“Fire is across the road. I didn’t see anyone in the command vehicle. Visibility is near zero.”
An ambulance attendant asked for details.
“We can’t find the Marion fire chief right now,” Soyez responded. “His truck got over-engulfed. I don’t know where he is.”
Soyez reflected on those anxious moments Monday.
“From our side, we couldn’t see what had happened. All of a sudden, we couldn’t see his vehicle,” he said.
Everyone was worried.
Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee attempted to reach Killough by radio. Killough answered, according to transmissions monitored by the newspaper, but Steketee and others apparently did not hear him because he was transmitting to a talk group they apparently weren’t monitoring.
Thinking Killough was in trouble, an ambulance attendant quickly asked about getting a helicopter ambulance in the air.
A minute later, however, Killough switched back to the talk group that others were monitoring, saying: “Yes, I’m good. I don’t know how my truck is, but I’m OK.”
Steketee responded with obvious relief: “That is good news. We were pretty worried about you.”
A firefighter aboard a Hillsboro brush truck then interjected: “I’m afraid you may have to have a couple of new decals put on the passenger side of your pickup.”
Killough responded: “I’m good with decals.”
The fire started south of 170th Rd., rapidly spreading from east of Marion County Lake across US-77. The first scanner traffic came at 3:21 p.m.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but Soyez said some type of implement had backfired, causing a spark.
Firefighters from at least eight departments — including Marion, Peabody, Hillsboro, Florence, Lincolnville, Goessel, Durham, and Lehigh — fought the fire until almost dusk.
Marion ambulance treated at least one firefighter for smoke inhalation.
Soyez helped direct traffic — cars, trucks, trailers, a school bus — at 170th and US-77.
“We didn’t want anyone going east on 170th,” he said Monday.
The US-56/77/K-150 roundabout caused complications.
“The Marion roundabout is hard to block off because you have the offshoots as well,” he said.
Some farmers in the area rushed to protect livestock and hay.
Mary Beth Bowers was home when her husband called to tell her to get their trailer.
They live 3½ miles north of the roundabout on US-56/77.
Greg Bowers had been in the area before the fire. He had put their cattle in a pen, planning to move them home later. He already had moved five pairs of cows and calves.
He saw smoke from the fire and decided to move faster to get the others home.
“He saw the fire and thought ‘Whoa, I better get to it.’ I hopped into the truck and trailer,” his wife, Mary Beth Bower, said.
Emergency workers stopped her.
“I told them I needed to go south on 77 because we needed to get cattle loaded,” she said. “The sheriff’s officer said, ‘Take the wing of the roundabout and go.’ We just wanted to get them out of there.”
Cory Nelson didn’t move his horses, but he definitely noticed the fire.
“I was in my yard and saw the smoke,” he said.
He gathered near 170th and US-77 with friends, including some who had taken all-terrain vehicles out with water on board to help if needed.
One put out plants that had caught on fire at a cabin.
People who live at the lake kept watch, lake superintendent Isaac Hett said. Many were driving their golf carts around to get a better view of the fire.
“Nobody out here was worried about anything happening at the lake because of the direction of the wind,” Hett said. “People were definitely concerned just about a fire during a red-flag warning with the wind blowing as much as it was.”
He had hoped the fire would stall out once it got to US-77.
“Then I heard it jumped the highway,” Hett said. “Once it started, it went pretty quick.”