MARCH 29, 2016, MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. – The Anderson Creek Fire scorched approximately 400,000 acres of rural Oklahoma and Kansas land, with approximately 273,000 acres affected in Barber County located in south central Kansas, making it one of the wildfire in Kansas history, according to the Kansas Forest Service.
With the help of scores of professional and volunteer firefighters, the Kansas National Guard and an advantageous snowstorm that dropped nearly three inches of snow on the burn zone the morning of March 27, the fire is nearing full containment.
“We were fortunate enough to have the National Guard aircraft mobilize to help out here on the Anderson Creek fire – Kansas side,” said Mark Masters, fire operations director, Kansas Forest Service Incident Management Team.
The rugged terrain made it difficult for ground-based fire crews to access all of the areas affected, and that’s why the Kansas National Guard aviation assets were needed.
“This terrain is pretty challenging,” said Kansas Govenor Sam Brownback. “Much of Kansas is flat, but here you’ve got canyons and a lot of our fire trucks can’t get into these areas. The troops have done this in other states so they get to use that experience here in Kansas.”
Four Black Hawk helicopters equipped with Bambi buckets and approximately 20 Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, Kansas Army National Guard, arrived in Medicine Lodge the morning of March 26, to assist with aerial fire suppression and reconnaissance. The fire was approximately 15 percent contained at the time, according to Gaten Wood, agency administrator for Barber County.
“The ground crews are stating that we knocked the teeth in on this fire and beat it down pretty good,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steve Hood, KSARNG, who served as the flight control manager. “The civilian agencies in this part of the country do not have any aviation assets, so it’s all ground.
“When you get fires this big, all the ground guys can do is try to contain it. With the aircraft and the Bambi bucket, we can put a lot of water where these guys can’t get. We can do a lot of cooling of the fire, so the ground crews can get in and knock it down.”
The Guard dumped an estimated 124 buckets of water on the hot spots and areas in need, as directed by the incident management. Col. Dave Leger, state Army aviation officer, KSARNG, estimated an approximate 68,000 gallons of water were dumped March 26-27. As of the evening of March 27, the fire containment was estimated to be above 80 percent by incident officials.
Each Black Hawk, which is manned by a four-person crew, scooped water into the Bambi buckets from local water sources to dump on the flames and hot spots. In addition to the aircraft, the 108th sent a fuel tanker truck and another ground support vehicle with two crewmembers each.
All of the crews fighting the fire received a much-needed break from the windy and dry weather as south central Kansas, including much of the burn area, received an accumulation of up to three inches of overnight snow March 26.
“The timing of the weather was super helpful,” Masters said. “We got more moisture than we expected and the timing of getting the National Guard aircraft here and dropping water was helpful. I’m hopeful to be able to put this thing to bed and try to get the local community back to some sense of normalcy.”
According to Masters, the teamwork between the fire crews, incident management team and Guard Soldiers came naturally.
“We were working seamlessly as one air team,” Masters said. “That cohesion and teamwork was instant as soon as the aircraft landed.”
“The integration between us and the guys on the ground has been phenomenal,” said Maj. Kevin Kennedy, 1-108th operations officer Black Hawk pilot. “They’ve been able to zero us in on some of the spots that are inaccessible as well as some of the areas where the fire is just so big it makes more sense to attack it from above.”
Many of the Kansas aviation Soldiers have assisted with wildfire suppression in other states, but for most, this was their first fire control mission in Kansas.
“As Guardsmen,” Kennedy said. “This is one of the reasons that we joined. We joined so that we could help our brothers and sisters in the event that something happened. The ability to take our training and use that training to help our neighbors is why we got into this business to begin with.”
Kennedy was quick to credit the ground crews for a majority of the containment.
“Even though our contributions are probably the most visible,” Kennedy said, “the people who are making the most difference are the firefighters that are on the ground.”
The Guard Soldiers departed Medicine Lodge March 27, to return to their respective home stations in Salina and Topeka.
“Our highest gratitude goes out to the Kansas National Guard for their expertise and professionalism,” said Gaten Wood, Barber County attorney, who served as agency administrator for the incident management team. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”