By Chloe Wray
KCRG-TV9 reported late Saturday, Nov. 25 that a fire had broken out between 20th Street and Highway 6. The fire, which burned 40 acres and 70 bales of hay, resulted in the death of Bernhard Wiltfang, 86 years old.
In an email to The S&B, Fire Chief Dan Sicard explained the circumstances surrounding the fire, stating, “The deceased, Wiltfang, was driving his pick-up in the fields. His truck got stuck going over a terrace. The exhaust from the truck ignited the tall grass around him and the wind spread the flames through the fields to a pile of hay bales. … It is assumed he exited the truck to either escape the fire or attempt to extinguish it.”
Arson is not suspected; the fire appeared to be completely accidental. According to Sicard, grass fires are quite common, with the Grinnell Fire Department responding to 15 to 30 such fires a year. Typically, around half of these fires damage over 10 acres of land. These cases are quite significant alone in terms of land loss.
“Having a fatality, while not unheard of, is uncommon,” Sicard wrote on the severity of this accident.
The Grinnell Fire Department received word of the fire after a witness called to report seeing a lot of smoke from the highway. Fire Chief Sicard estimates that the fire was burning up to 30 minutes before the department received a call. Within six minutes of receiving the report firefighters were at the scene, starting to extinguish at the head of the fire.
“This is usually the furthest point from the origin, this is done to stop the spread of the fire. As more equipment arrived they then work their way back to the point of origin. The victim was found 31 minutes into the fire,” Sicard wrote.
It is noted in his obituary published in the Des Moines Register and listed on the Smith Funeral Homes & Cremation Services website that Wiltfang was a life-long Iowa resident, save the time he spent attending medical school at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Born in Marshalltown, Wiltfang opened his medical practice in Grinnell in 1967. Known around town as “Doc,” Wiltfang’s medical practice served the community for 36 years until his retirement in 2003. Wiltfang raised his family on his farm in west Grinnell, and he is survived by a wife, four children and many grandchildren.