Fires are a regular occurrence out West

Published 9:43 am Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Column: Pothole Pairie

There have been quite a few fires lately. A huge grass fire occurred on the south side of Albert Lea on Monday, and a fire consumed railroad ties and telephone poles at Morreim Drainage northeast of Manchester on Thursday.

Both times I was able to get close to the flames and the firefighters with my camera. Honestly, it reminded me very much of when I worked in central Washington — the state, not the capital. Grass fires were pretty much a way of life there in windy and arid Ellensburg.

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Marine weather systems would hit the Cascade Range, and the air would squeeze through the passes and down the Kittitas Valley like going through a funnel. Ellensburg was right there in the middle of the Kittitas Valley.

People know Washington gets rain, but that wet weather is mainly on the western side of the Cascades. The eastern side is arid. In fact, the Kittitas Valley is horse country because the forests thin out as the amount of annual rainfall becomes less and less the farther east you travel. Open meadows leading into ponderosa pines, well, that’s just a great place to ride horses.

Back in the spring of 2001, not long after I had moved to Ellensburg, I was driving into the city from the west end and spotted a fire in a field near some homes. I rushed to let people know and I grabbed a garden hose. Other people soon joined me and together we were fighting this fire. The fire department didn’t even come because there were other grass fires to battle.

The owners of the house to which I was nearest simply were sitting out on their patio watching us douse the fire. They didn’t thank anyone, as far as I could tell. Clearly, I was living in a part of the country where grass fires were a regular occurrence.

During all this, I banged and bloodied my head on a ceramic object that hung down from a tree branch. I busted it even. No wonder firefighters wear helmets. The object offered water and food for birds. In Minnesota, we feed birds. On the east side of Washington, they feed and water birds.

So in the summer of 2004 there were wildfires every few days, set by a serial arsonist. The Ellensburg Daily Record was a paper that hit the stores around lunchtime just like the Albert Lea Tribune. That means most of the newsroom staff would depart around 3:30 or 4 p.m., having arrived around 6:30 or 7 a.m.

The arsonist got off from his job as a construction flagger around 3 p.m. and, because he felt depressed, would go start fires. So just as the reporters and photographers were about to leave for the day, suddenly we would need to go cover yet another arson, usually working into the late evening. He set about 20 over two months.

At the end of the summer, he was arrested and pleaded not guilty. He later took responsibility for his actions and pleaded guilty to 11 of the fires: two counts of first-degree arson, six counts of second-degree arson and three counts of second-degree reckless burning.

Many local folks had a strong disliking of the man, of course. The depression he brought up during court procedures was no excuse for the trouble he caused. Not only did all the first responders and my news staff work and work — and work and work and work — to deal with his fires, his fires sometimes spread to residential areas and forests. They burned down four houses, a shop, a footbridge and very nearly burned several other homes, scaring many, many people and disrupting many lives. His fires scorched more than 1,400 acres of range and timberland.

Some of the fires required helicopters and airplanes to extinguish, and the ones that burned forests days later needed firefighters to monitor in case of below-the-ground hot spots, which can restart a blaze.

So, yes, I have covered grass fires before. The one on the south side of Albert Lea on Monday was big deal for our fair Midwestern town because people could have lost their homes. And it is rare to be so dry in spring. After all, how strange is it that we had a freeze warning on the same day as a fire risk warning?

What happened to the serial arsonist? He was sentenced to nine years in prison. His name is Wade Kirkwood, and he appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360” in 2008.Though that segment is now hard to find online, there remains plenty of other news about him online, if you are curious.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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