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Command of huge grassfire comes naturally

Protecting the public is family legacy

Staff writer

The background music of Charlene Miller’s childhood was the crackle of the police scanner.

The way she tells it, she has been listening to emergency calls since she could walk.

Since then, Miller learned that helping people on the worst day of their lives is her family’s business.

Her father, Barry Black, has served as Burns fire chief for more than 30 years.

Shelly Black, her mother, served with Butler County emergency medical services and then worked as an emergency dispatcher.

“It runs in our blood,” said Miller, who joined the Burns department at 18 and later became an emergency manager for Butler County.

Miller now works as an extension agent for Butler County and has a ranching operation. But she still is a firefighter.

The calm demeanor and “passion for emergency services” that Miller says she inherited from her parents served her well when she took command during a grass fire near Burns this past Wednesday.

The fire consumed more than 7,000 acres, destroyed fencing and killed an unknown number of calves.

Taking command

The blaze raged out of the control of eight area departments that spent more than six hours trying to contain it — but chief Black admits the resident tried to be careful with the brush pile that ignited it.

“They did a good job trying to take care of it,” he said. “They covered it over with earth. There must have been hot spots that the wind got started when it hit them.”

Abundant dry grass makes perfect kindling, Florence fire chief Mark Slater said.

“There is a lot of fuel out there in those Flint Hills,” he said. “A lot of fuel.”

Paul Howerton, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Wichita, said the county has been abnormally dry this year with precipitation levels at least 1 inch below normal for February and early March.

Gusts of up to 44 mph, strong enough to damage small structures, were reported at the nearest recording station in Newton the afternoon of the fire.

Volunteer firefighters from Goessel, Hillsboro, Marion and Lehigh were dispatched to the scene as a part of the Marion County Task force. They were joined by firefighters from Burns, Florence, Peabody and Strong City.

They arrived to a fire that had jumped a road and was rapidly spreading into Chase County.

“With the winds they way they were, it just exploded,” said Black.

Miller agreed to take over command when Black and others were needed to fight the fire.

“I can’t do command and run a truck at the same time,” he said adding that his daughter assumed the role of chief when he recovered from heart surgery.

Miller established a post at 30th St. and A Rd. and quickly asked area businesses including McClasky Oil of El Dorado and Central Ag Service of Burns to supply additional water.

“I knew McClasky Oil had a tanker filled and ready to respond with 4,000 gallons in the event of a fire, so I promptly called them,” she said.

Miller immediately said yes when county emergency management director Randy Frank asked if she wanted help from the Forestry Service.

“I told him ‘If we can get them, let’s do it,’ she said. “If we don’t need them we can always turn them around. But I knew what was unfolding.”

The size of the fire made it hard for Miller to see what was happening as she tried to communicate with multiple departments that were trying not tie up the radio.

Miller admits the scene was “crazy” but said she relied on her training to pull through.

“The whole goal is to try and bring calm to a chaotic situation and get them where they need to go,” she said.

“So you stay cool, calm and collected and try to work with everybody and manage the radio traffic going on over multiple channels.

Slater has nothing but high praise for Miller.

“She knew exactly where her units were at and what she was up against with what happened in a short amount of time” he said. “She did an awesome job.”

Last modified March 18, 2021

 

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