rising road I72

A tow truck prepares to remove a vehicle from the scene of an accident Wednesday on eastbound Interstate 72 near the Rising Road overpass in Champaign. The field behind was burned by a fire earlier in the day; the dust in the background is from a tractor finishing late-afternoon combining. State police reported the accicdent was caused by smoke from the fire.

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When the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning indicating critical fire conditions are present, Robert Russian no doubt thinks back to this time of year three years ago.

The Pesotum fire chief saw how bad things can get.

“We had corn fields burning near Pesotum all the way to Tuscola along I-57. That’s eight miles and another two to three miles to Arcola.”

Numerous area fire departments pitched in to quell the burning sensation. In some cases, fire equipment was brought to the interstate as fire jumped into the median.

One good thing: The wind was blowing the smoke away from traffic, and visibility was not greatly affected.

“We had a lot of help,” Russian said. “We had trucks from as far as Homer and St. Joe helping. Broadlands, Villa Grove, Sadorus and probably all the fire units from the west of the county.”

The firefighters were exhausted after the daylong experience.

“We were wiped out,” Russian said. “We kept jumping from one fire to another.”

While central Illinois doesn’t have the same conditions as the West Coast for wildfires, the potential for fire problems exists.

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service said conditions were critical for a major fire event in portions of northern Indiana and Illinois, including Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, Kankakee and several other Illinois counties. That was due to winds forecast to gust up to 45 mph, low relative humidity and exceptionally dry fuels.

As if on cue, several field fires were reported in the area.

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On Tuesday, Fisher fire Chief Eric Stalter said his department got help from area farmers when a field fire broke out about a mile and a half north of Dewey.

Farmers who were doing tillage work saw the fire, “drove over discing and chisel-plowing and created a barrier” around the fire, which was caused by someone “who decided to burn trash on a day when the wind was 30 mph.”

“Good people helping out,” Stalter said of the farmers.

Sangamon Valley (Fisher) and Rantoul firefighters did the rest, extinguishing the flames in a corn field that had already been harvested.

Rantoul Fire Chief Ken Waters said his department has fought its share of field fires over the years. The worst happened south of the former Chanute Air Force Base, where about 40 acres were burning.

“It was crops,” Waters said. “About half of it was destroyed. We made the stop the next mile road before it made it to the farm house.”

The Gifford and Thomasboro departments assisted.

***Champaign fire Chief Gary Ludwig, who completed a stint as International Association of Fire Chiefs president in August, said while conditions exist for field fires in Illinois, the area is not in danger of the wildfires that have hit the west coast.

“What you have there is wildland urban interface,” said Ludwig, who has attended presentations by fire chiefs in his role as president of the international association and has seen some of the destruction. “You have homes sprawling out of the city, and they’re building into the wild land itself. As a result you have what might be traditional forest area and homes being built there.”

Fire fuel is available in abundance from dead material on the forest floor that might be a foot high. Forest management is necessary to get rid of that material, which is done via controlled burns.

“The third factor is the terrible Santa Ana winds” that can reach 40 to 50 mph, Ludwig said. “With the humidity level right, all it takes is one spark.”

Ludwig said he feels the chance of such wildfires being “very low” in this area.

“We don’t have a tremendous amount of wildland urban interface. We don’t have the forest management issues,” he said. “We’ve got fields, but … there’s not many structures out there.”

Nor are there the “tremendous high winds.”

Ludwig said that doesn’t mean area residents shouldn’t be concerned with conditions. They should play it smart.