Wind-whipped inferno

Tire tracks from rescue vehicles criss-cross through fire-blackened ditches along U.S. Highway 77 south of Florence Sunday afternoon. More than 1,200 acres burned near Florence, fueled by 40-plus mph winds. About 80 acres burned near Hillsboro as well.Marion County volunteer firefighters had their hands full Sunday fight?ing grass fires near Hillsboro and Florence.

More than 1,200 acres burned near Florence, starting in the southwest quad?rant near a pasture at Xavier and 90th and traveling north and east from that point, Florence Fire Chief Mark Slater said Monday.

?(The fire) consumed a lot of ground in a short amount of time,? he said. ?It was one of our largest fires in quite some time. I was in church when I got the call at 11:25 a.m. By 5:30 p.m., we were finished.?

Even before Slater and other Florence firefighters arrived at the scene, responders were called in from Peabody, Burns, Cedar Point and Marion.

?We had a total of 18 trucks and 36 people,? Slater said. ?Behind the scenes, we had ambulance personnel for support, my wife, Cindy, who brought water and Trayce Warner who brought sandwiches.?

Another resident, Joe Box, manned the hydrant in Florence to get the trucks back out to the site as soon as possible.

The Kansas Fire Marshal?s office was also called to investigate and make a record of it.

?We also had some hous?es in danger, including Nancy Shanklin?s place and Les Allison?s (house).?

Fires near Hillsboro

Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee also had a busy weekend with a grass fire Saturday and again on Sunday.

?Saturday we went to rural Lehigh for a controlled burn that got out of control,? he said. ?Saturday was a nice day, and a lot of people were burning.?

Sunday?s call kept firefighters in the field for more than 10 hours and Steketee stayed an additional eight hours.

?We were toned out at 11:23 a.m. (Sunday) to 160th and Limestone, about three miles southeast of Hillsboro,? he said. ?It was almost 10:30 p.m. when the Hillsboro firefighters went back.?

One of the problems, Ste?ketee said, involved a couple of hedge?rows in close proximity to Rich Loewen?s house. Concern prompted Steketee to on site until 5 a.m. Monday.

?The winds kept pushing and pushing and pushing and what was a little ember (at one point) was soon a whole tree burning again,? he said.

?We would put that fire out and wait for another one. It was just a tedious process of getting them all put out.?

The windy conditions also made it nearly impossible to get in front of the fire, prompting firefighters to fight it from behind, he said.

At one point, Steketee said he thought the fire was contained and he released the Marion crew.

?They went to help Florence, but then (the fire) took off again,? Steketee said.

In total, about 80 acres were charred, he said.

Marion called back

Marion firefighters were called back to Hillsboro a second time, he said, after just getting back to Marion.

Steketee encourages people to be ?fire smart.?

If there?s a high wind advisory, and red-flag warnings because of dry conditions, people shouldn?t burn, he said.

?Pay attention to the forecast,? he said. ?Just because it?s nice today, it can change tomorrow.?

Steketee said to imagine the trouble with a grass fire and then imagine if it was a structural fire in town.A hot spot continues to smolder in a rural location south of Florence. The 1,200-acre fire did threaten at least two homes in the area, but no structural damage resulted.

?If burning stuff in the backyard, don?t leave it unattended. Make sure there?s adult supervision and have a means to put the fire out?even if it?s a garden hose.?

Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier said about eight firefighters from Marion helped Hills?boro and Florence.

In total, Steketee said about 25 firefighters fought the grass fire.

?(We) went out at 11:30 a.m., and got home at 9:30 p.m.,? he said. ?We went from Hillsboro to Florence and back to Hillsboro.?

In addition to Hillsboro and Marion firefighters responding, the Hillsboro ambulance made sure crews had water and were safe, Steketee said.

In addition to the fires in Hillsboro and Florence, Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft said other grass fires were scattered in the county, but no structures, other than an old shed, were damaged.

A fire south of Lincoln?ville was also reported, but no details were available by press time.

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