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Posted on Jul 9, 2015

Fire-fighting farmers rally to protect neighbors

The white trails climbing along the scorched terrain at Baird and Willow Springs on Monument Hill are a testament to the strength of neighbors rallying together to help one another in an emergency.
On the night of July 4, several local farmers saw the far-off glow of a line of fire just breaching Monument Hill. They immediately began calling one another and took to the hills with their tractors and discs, working to establish fire lines for local firefighters who they knew were on their way.
There’s a spirit of togetherness that comes with living in the scablands north of Quincy, said some of the farmers who worked that night battling the fire and wind gusts of more than 30 mph.
“We’re all in it pretty much together,” said Keevin Schulz, who has lived on the hills for 35 years. “We’re kind of a ‘hood up here.”
“It’s just the community — we kind of all got each other’s backs,” said Larry Schaapman, another longtime homeowner and farmer in that area.
On that evening, Schulz and Schaapman, along with neighbors Ross Massey and Tim Drier, worked at building fire lines above Road 14 Northwest, off of Overen Road. More farmers and their tractors were working to the west of them, battling to save homes there. The Driers also opened up their home to several neighbors whose homes were in harm’s way.
A Quincy Valley Post-Register photo got much attention this week on a variety of news and ag-related websites. It shows Schaapman building a fire line as flames lick at his tractor.
“I could get fairly close because of the direction of the wind,” he said.
Much of the time Schaapman worked with the wind in his favor; however, at one point during the hot, smoke-filled evening, the fire jumped the line he was making and got around him.
“That was a little unnerving,” he said. “Especially when there is nothing but a wall of smoke around.”
Fighting a wind-driven wildfire is difficult for any professional firefighter, Schaapman said. Add to that the steep, rocky terrain of Monument Hill. Some of the fire apparatus cannot climb the terrain, he said.
On a tractor, the farmers can pick their angles and go through a ravine or a draw, Schaapman said. The discs are used to turn over the dirt, hopefully eliminating the fuels that the fire seeks and creating a fire line that will stop it from spreading.
The tractor-made fire lines give the firefighters a fighting chance to do their job, Schulz said.
The local firefighters – many of them neighbors themselves – have been stretched thin all week battling various fires, added Schulz, whose own home was in the line of fire that night. Schulz went to bed at 4:30 a.m. on July 5 and when he got up, the firefighters were still there outside his home.
“We know how appreciative they are of us when we can come and help,” Schaapman said.
There is no formal agreement between the firefighters and the farmers, said Michele Talley, recruit and retention coordinator with Grant County Fire District No. 3.
“But we are extremely grateful when they do come out,” Talley said.
It’s a great partnership because the local farmers are familiar with the fire district’s firefighting tactics, she said. On July 4, Talley was stationed at Mike Kniep’s house off Willow Springs Road, where she saw at least three discs at work, she said.
And when you have a 30 mph wind, you have a 30 mph fire, Talley explained. That’s where those tractors and the building of fire lines come in.
“That’s how you stop a running fire,” she said.
Shirley and Bob Pusey were the fortunate recipients of the unique partnership.
They chose to build their home on Road 14, four miles from town, because they wanted country living with a view of Quincy, Shirley Pusey said. Six homes are built along the short, quiet street.
On that evening, the street was full of fire trucks and the fire was quickly headed toward the homes, Pusey said. When a sheriff’s deputy told them they had to leave, the Puseys loaded up their two cats, some important documents and their family photos.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to have a house or not,” Pusey said.
On Tuesday, the Pusey home was safe. One of those white fire lines was just across the road, running along a fence line. Firefighters also lit a backfire to stop the fire from reaching the homes.
When she left her home that night for safer ground, Pusey said, she did not know her neighbors were out there helping to fight the fire.
But she also wasn’t surprised.
“It’s the support of this community,” she said. “We have seen it in a lot of different situations and it’s just wonderful.”


— By Jill FitzSimmons,

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