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Safe fires are his burning desire

Staff writer

Nathan Brunner lives and breathes fire.

He’s fire chief in Ramona, a full-time Marion County advanced emergency medical technician and, on his off days, runs a burn business.

The county has been awash the past two weeks in controlled burns that got out of hand, with firefighters responding to more than two dozen fires in the past week.

Preventing the need for such responses is what Fire for Hire is all about.

Sometimes, things can go sideways on a burn day with “weather going against what predictions were,” Brunner said.

Fire whirls, and wildlife that catch on fire and spread flames also pose problems. Then there are people who just like to set things on fire because they think it’s fun.

It’s not fun for people such as Brunner.

“We do have arsonists,” he said.

In 2010, Brunner and his uncle, Leonard Jirak, started Fire for Hire, a company that provides consultations and “prescribed” burns for farmers, ranchers, companies, and state and federal agencies.

Brunner and a pool of about 15 employees handle controlled burns for landowners and agencies that can’t or don’t want to do the work themselves.

“A lot of landowners are getting older and can’t do it themselves,” he said. “Water supply is also a huge thing.”

Fire for Hire works about 20 to 25 prescribed burns a year, mostly in Marion, Dickinson, and McPherson counties. So far this year, the smallest burn the company has tackled was half an acre. The largest was 1,150 acres.

Brunner will write actual prescriptions for controlled burns. The prescriptions are based on factors such as relative humidity, temperature, and wind speed.

Fire for Hire first meets with a potential client about the client’s goals. For example, is he or she trying to get land back into crop ground? Is help establishing fire breaks need? Is the goal to get rid of invasive plants and trees such as cedars?

Brunner and his crew have done work for the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads. Fire for Hire is on its third consecutive year handling burns for Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

When a job comes up, Brunner sends a group text asking who is available.

“The lowest I’ll ever go is three people,” he said. “I’ve had a maximum of 12 people total.”

Fire for Hire workdays start at Brunner’s home west of Ramona, where all equipment is stored in a Morton building.

“We do a full equipment check, check fluids, check pumps, load equipment, and talk over the day’s plan,” he said.

Then they meet at a staging area, off-load equipment, and get a water supply going.

“We have our own 3,200-gallon tanker and have portable drop tanks,” he said.

Much confusion exists about when burns are allowed, Brunner said. For example, landowners enrolled in Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program are allowed to burn only between Feb. 1 and April 15 and between July 15 and Sept. 30.

Brush piles and recreational burning are banned in April, but pastureland and cropland can be burned into the first or second week of May. There’s no hard stop on that, Brunner said, but most farmers work to get it done by then.

The goal is to reduce unnecessary burning so necessary burning can take place.

Fire for Hire used to bill by the acre. Now it bids by the project.

“We do a consultation, write a burn plan, give them an estimate, and sign a contract,” he said. “There are some things we can’t control, but we’ve never had an injury.”

Brunner got started in emergency responder work out of high school. Jirak was a biologist for what is now Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“Word of mouth got around,” Brunner said. “It kind of grew like a wildfire from there.”

He works 48-hour shifts with EMS and then is off for 96 hours.

The business, he said, has expanded almost to the point “where I need to make a choice.”

Jirak sold out to Brunner two years ago. But it’s still a family operation. Brunner’s wife, Katy, handles bookkeeping and invoicing.

“My dad is always there helping with maintenance,” he said.

In addition to the tanker and various UTV vehicles, Fire for Hire owns three brush trucks, several portable drop tanks, cordless power tools, and mechanical equipment, multiple hand tools, several hundred feet of specialty wildland hose, and pumps that can be dropped in a creek or pond to get more water.

Within the next year, Brunner expects to buy equipment to rent out to farmers.

“We want to provide a safe option for people to burn,” he said.

Is the work lucrative?

“Yes, it is,” he said.

But it’s also an expensive business to operate.

Fire for Burn is covered by worker’s compensation and liability policies specifically for burning.

“What sets me apart is I have that insurance,” he said. “I’m one of five in the state that has that insurance.”

Last modified April 6, 2023

 

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