BY SUSAN THACKER
and JIM MISUNAS
Fireworks went on sale Tuesday in Barton County and by Tuesday evening the Great Bend Fire Department had its first fireworks-related blaze, Battalion Chief John Stettinger said.
It happened around 7:40 p.m. in the 900 block of East 10th St., behind Diane’s Diner. Trees, tires, railroad ties, two-by-fours and trash burned in the tree belt for about an hour.
That wasn’t the first fire of the day, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“I’d advise people to be extremely careful because it’s extreme fire conditions with temperatures reaching 110 degrees,” said Mike Napolitano, Great Bend fire chief. “Any spark can start a fire.”
At 3:05 p.m. Tuesday, a mower crew struck a concrete culvert at 222 North Washington. The resulting spark was enough to ignite a small ditch fire. “That shows you how dry it is,” Stettinger said. “We were out about one hour.”
The next fire was a large one, reported at 11:07 p.m. south of Great Bend on the Arkansas River, in the vicinity of Second and Locust or Chestnut. Firefighters would battle that blaze until 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. Trees, large stumps and brush in the river were on fire. Fire officials report the fire’s cause was most likely man made.
“The problem with fires down in that area is accessibility,” Stettinger said, noting firefighters must sometimes string together 300 or 400 feet of hose just to reach the fire. Firefighters used as much as 6,000 gallons of water on that fire. The heat was a factor in fighting all of the fires; even at 3:30 a.m. the temperature remained in the 90s.
It’s possible the river fire was also caused by fireworks, Stettinger said. “Someone said people were shooting fireworks, and someone saw a person running, but we’re not really sure.” The Barton County Sheriff’s Office call log shows burlap sacks may have been set on fire.
The next fire was reported around 8 a.m. east of Fort Zarah off U.S. 56, apparently ignited by a passing vehicle. Firefighters were kept busy all day Wednesday.
The Arkansas City River fire rekindled about 4 p.m. Wednesday when someone reported seeing smoke south of Great Bend. The fire area was 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile. The fire got to the top of the dike near Locust when firefighters stopped it from progressing any further north.
“All it takes is a spark with the way the wind is blowing,” said Eugene Perkins, batallion chief. “The firefighters did a great job preventing it from jumping the dike area.”
When the afternoon fire was reported, the National Weather Service reported a temperature of 111 degrees with 12 percent humidity. The excessive heat created dangerous conditions for firefighters. Napolitano said one firefighter was transported by EMS to the hospital with possible heat exhaustion. Firefighters are equipped with more than 25 pounds of firefighting gear.
“It’s extremely tough firefighting conditions because this heat with the fire gear on wears you out quickly,” said Perkins. “We’ve been rotating crews in and out every chance we get to keep them fresh.”
Perkins said crews would be monitoring the hot spots until everything was under control. He said several fire breaks would be prepared by bulldozing some ground to prevent the fire from possibly spreading.
Napolitano said water was provided by Great Bend firefighters, Barton County deputies and the American Red Cross was providing food. He said it was important that firefighters work only 30 to 40 minutes so they don’t get heat exhaustion.
At 4:36 p.m., city workers volunteered use of a bulldozer and to bring a tank full of water to the dyke. At that time, command indicated a need for additional personnel to rotate out fire workers and take time for rehab.
“Let’s do rehab up on the dyke so we can get away from this smoke.”
Firefighters from Stafford County, Pawnee Rock and Ellinwood assisted with the fire. Stone Sand delivered a bulldozer and Hazmat, Inc. provided additional water.
“It’s extremely dangerous fire conditions,” Napolitano said. “We appreciate all the mutual help we were getting.”