Five fire departments converged east of Marion on Friday to battle a 600-acre grass fire that jumped Upland Rd. near Marion Municipal Airport and inundated the town with thick smoke for more than an hour.
A controlled burn in a pasture east of the airport near US-77 was one of many in the county on a day with low winds well-suited for burning.
But the wind unexpectedly picked up, Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier said, and what was controlled suddenly wasn’t.
Marion firefighters arrived at the scene to find the spreading fire still well to the east of Upland Rd., and Regnier said at that point he was hopeful the fire would burn itself out if it reached the road.
As the fire crested a slope, it picked up in intensity and speed, pushed by wind and fueled by unseasonably dry grass.
Nick Kraus, one of the men working the controlled burn, said he hopped on a four-wheeler to go assess the north end of the fire. He stopped at K-256 and Upland Rd. to consult with emergency management director Randy Frank, who was directing traffic, then saw that the fire was speeding toward the road.
Kraus raced south on the four-wheeler along the east ditch, trailing flames as he attempted to set a backfire to stall the inferno’s advance, but the fire flattened out into a sheet of flames, crossed the road north of the airport, and kept right on moving.
Regnier said firefighters focused on keeping the fire out in pastures and away from the homes along K-256, as residents were contacted and told to consider evacuating. The fire’s westward progress was stopped just before it reached the east edge of Marion Country Club.
However, the main evacuation involved a herd of cattle from pasture behind the home of Mike and Gayle Thomas.
Gayle Thomas said she saw the smoke and flames from her back yard, but wasn’t concerned for the house because of a small stream that runs behind it. She called Mike at the Marion elevator, and he joined his brother-in-law Tom Thomas and Kraus to move the cattle into a small field east of the house.
Units from Peabody, Florence, Hillsboro, and Lincolnville joined the fray to help contain the fire, which was largely extinguished by about 5:30 p.m., Regnier said.
Hillsboro and Peabody had responded to grass fires earlier that afternoon. County departments made seven runs to fires on Thursday and Friday.
Marion firefighters continued to patrol for hot spots until after 8 p.m.