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Fires prompts county to ban burning

Outbuilding destroyed by one of a series of grass fires started by burning rubbish

Staff writer

A pile of intentionally burning rubbish that almost instantly flashed into an out-of-control two-alarm fire, in seconds consuming one building and threatening another, was the final straw Monday for weather-weary fire chiefs and emergency workers.

As chiefs of three of the four volunteer fire departments that responded to the blaze, 2½ miles west of Lincolnville at Timber and 290th roads, paused to wipe their brows amid still smoldering debris, conversation quickly turned to how it was well past time to make an emergency plea to county residents.

“Common sense seems to have gone out the window for a while,” said Marion chief Mike Regnier, whose crews had fought seven fires in eight days, including three that started as controlled burning of rubbish. “A hundred and five degrees. You hope people are smart enough not to go out there and burn trash.”

Fire chiefs from Lost Springs, Marion, and Tampa, whose crews had been summoned to assist Lincolnville firefighters Monday, sought out another responder to the scene, Dan D’Albini, the county’s recently appointed emergency management director, and quickly convinced him.

Acting on their behalf, D’Albini called the courthouse, where county commissioners had just finished their weekly meeting, and arranged with Chairman Roger Fleming and Clerk Carol Maggard to draft a seven-day ban on burning refuse and have it signed at an emergency commission meeting Tuesday morning.

“This is my first experience with the commission,” said Fleming, who is serving his first term. “I was under the assumption that the fire chiefs could do this themselves. Somebody asked me before the Fourth why we hadn’t done it, but it rained a little and, honestly, I forgot about it.

“Now I find out we have to do it in a commission meeting. I wasn’t sure where the authority lies. In Harvey County, the fire chiefs would control it within their districts. Why do we have to wait for a commission meeting here?”

Fellow commissioner Randy Dallke had to rearrange his schedule to be able to attend an 8 a.m. Tuesday emergency session at which he and Fleming signed the resolution making make it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500, to burn refuse anywhere in Marion County for the next seven days and possibly longer. (See accompanying story.)

The third commissioner, Dan Holub, who attended Monday’s regular meeting by teleconference, is vacationing.

“Once we get this situation taken care of, hopefully we’ll deal with this on a longer-term basis,” Fleming said. “A lot of times we have to scramble, but long-term I’d like to have the disaster director make this determination on his own, without having to go to the commission each time.”

The disaster director, D’Albini, hopes Tuesday’s commission action will solve the problem — “except for extreme stupidity,” he added.

“It’s really bad,” he said, noting that many fires, such as those started accidentally by swathers, were hard to prevent. “That’s the ones we’re expecting. Burning trash that gets out of control is just too much.”

Norma Horinek, a Lincolnville emergency medical technician and one of the county’s few female volunteer firefighters, was first on the scene Monday and almost immediately requested a second alarm of mutual-aid responders.

“I was up at the EMS station with my son, doing inventory when the call came in,” she recalled. “When we got there, flames were coming out of the shed, and there were electrical wires down. Water and electricity are not good friends.

“When fire started coming out the roof, I said to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, my son and I with a brush truck are not going to put this out.’”

Horinek, 49, of Pilsen, with just three years of experience — “and we don’t get very many fires out here,” she noted — and her son, Jacob Horinek, 28, fighting his first blaze after completing fire school last week, concentrated on saving a second building while waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

“It spread so quickly from the trash pile to the building,” she said, “and then in the wink of an eye, it was already all the way over to the road” several hundred feet away.

Horinek eventually turned over command to Tampa chief Ron Mueller, whose crew, like Marion’s, had in the past week battled other blazes that began as controlled burns.

Horinek recalled her appearance at the scene — soot streaked across her face and hands and down the full length of several-sizes-too-big turnout gear that reached several inches below her hand and dragged on the ground.

“My chief, Lester Kaiser (who couldn’t make it to the scene) is going to remind me that I should always take my gear with me,” she said. “I forgot when I was running to the EMS office and had to borrow someone else’s.”

Horinek, who works as a janitor at Butler Community College in Marion but primarily serves as a caregiver for her 90-year-old mother, Velma Martin, became an EMT after taking classes at Butler and became a firefighter because “it’s a good way to learn about the people I was going to be working with as an EMT.”

“You go to these scenes as an EMT and there’s an adrenalin rush,” she said. “You want to put it out. You’re bit by the firebug.

“There’s always room for somebody to help their neighbors. We women may be a bit shorter, but that’s why there’s mutual aid.”

Passer-by Danny Rudolph of Pilsen was among the first to call in the fire at 10:42 a.m. He was forced to watch as the fire spread from merely threatening a shed to consuming it and extending hundreds of feet into trees and brush near the road while waiting for the initial responders to arrive at 10:50.

The last of the firefighters on the scene returned to their station at 1:14 p.m.

Hours after the fire but before the ban went into effect, a similar blaze saw Florence firefighters summoned at 6:38 p.m. Monday to a brome pasture on fire at 80th and Wagonwheel roads.

Other grass fires in the past week are listed in the Emergency Dispatches column on the Docket page in this week’s issue.

Despite how quickly grass fires have spread in excessive heat and official drought conditions, the National Weather Service has not issued a so-called red flag warning, alerting residents to fire danger.

“We may get into that later in the week,” meteorologist Vanessa Pearce said Monday, “but our standards really don’t have a lot to do with heat.”

Wind speed and how brown vs. green grass is — its so-called cured percentage — are key determinants in a formula used to evaluate fire threat, she said.

“We get reports called in regularly by emergency managers and trained observers for each county,” she said. “Right now, Marion County is reported to be 40 to 50 percent cured — basically half green, half brown.”

With that value, she said, the mathematical index that the weather service uses to assess fire risk “is not anywhere near” the level at which red flag warnings are issued.

Last modified July 21, 2011

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