Wildfires in multiple counties continued to burn across Kansas on Tuesday, killing one person and countless livestock, damaging structures, closing roads and forcing thousands of evacuations in an emergency one fire official called “unprecedented.”
“We’ve had bad fires and we’ve had really bad fires but never multiples at once like this,” said Eric Ward, a fire specialist with the Kansas Forest Service.
We’ve had bad fires and we’ve had really bad fires but never multiples at once like this.
Eric Ward, Kansas Forest Service fire specialist
Fire burned more than 400,000 acres in 21 counties in Kansas. By late Tuesday, a half-dozen counties were still burning.
“We’re not out of the woods, by any means,” Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve got to stay on top of this.”
Virtually all of Kansas was under a red flag warning on Tuesday. Fire risk is expected to continue through Thursday. Brownback urged residents to avoid roads near the fires, for their own safety.
“This is just too dynamic of a situation that we’re in now,” Brownback said.
An Oklahoma truck driver died after he was overcome by smoke in southern Kansas on Monday night. Another seven people have been injured in fire-related incidents, state officials said, though none of the injuries have been serious.
Ward with the forest service said a national incident management team was expected to arrive Tuesday to oversee fires in Hutchinson, where up to 12,000 people faced voluntary evacuation Monday and were not expected to be allowed back into their homes until Wednesday morning.
Out-of-state strike teams were expected in southwest Kansas and two single-engine air tankers in Dodge City by Tuesday afternoon, he said.
“None of those has happened before, so a lot of new ground for everyone,” Ward said.
Brownback said Kansas asked Wyoming to send helicopters for dropping water and South Dakota to send communications equipment.
‘Get out of here’
Fires in Clark County southwest of Greensburg along the Oklahoma state line have destroyed more than 351,000 acres of land, with damage reported to about 30 structures and bridges.
Mike Koehn and his wife, Myrna, evacuated their home a few miles west of Protection in nearby Comanche County on Monday. They returned home Tuesday morning to find everything gone.
“That old wildfire came through here, it came fast and hard. There was no time to do nothing but run,” Mike Koehn said.
Firefighters were unable to help them, he said. The line of fire stretched at least 4 miles, fueled by 50-mph winds.
“It came so fast, there was just nothing, nothing to do. We was going out of the drive and the police stopped us and told us we needed to get out of here,” Mike Koehn said. “And that is just what we did. That is about the size of it. We lost the house, all of the tractors, the truck, a whole bunch of small stuff.
It’s just the way it goes. We was just in the way of something that was pretty mean.
Mike Koehn, resident of Protection who lost his house overnight Tuesday
“It was a two-story house, and it’s all in the basement now,” Koehn said. “It’s just the way it goes. We was just in the way of something that was pretty mean.”
As they waited for an insurance adjuster, neighbors began showing up.
“Sorry,” said John Herd, a neighbor and friend who got out of his truck wearing an Ashland cap and overalls underneath a work jacket. “I don’t know what else to say.”
They shared stories they had heard about the fire.
“Wilson lost a couple of houses,” Herd said and then told Koehn he could stay in their motel, which they joked had a “no occupancy” sign on it the night before.
“The price would be right,” Herd said.
Koehn told him they would probably stay with his mother again in Protection until they figured out what the insurance would pay for.
Another neighbor drove up Mike Koehn’s driveway. “Can I get people together to help find you stuff?” she asked, patting him on the shoulder.
“We need a little time,” Koehn said. “This is all still kind of soaking in.”
Reno County fires
Seven homes were destroyed in Reno County, where officials estimate 6,000 acres have burned. Much of that occurred as part of a grassfire in the Highlands Area subdivision. Local officials have been unable to get into the area to assess damages.
Seven homes were destroyed in Ford County and two homes in Rooks County, where an estimated 10,240 acres have burned, said the adjutant general’s office. A bridge in Meade County also was reported destroyed.
The Kansas Department of Emergency Management, which is overseeing operations, had received additional firefighting resources from other states, officials said. A Type II Incident Management Team was expected to arrive from South Dakota later Tuesday.
Four helicopters equipped with 660-gallon “Bambi Buckets,” an aerial firefighting tool, launched at daylight Tuesday to continue assisting affected counties, officials said.
Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said early Tuesday that the fire spanned 25 square miles in the northern part of the county and had escaped a containment line at about 6 p.m. Monday.
About 100 firefighters from 17 agencies fought the blazes in Reno County.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 Hutchinson-area residents were evacuated Monday night, with between 100 and 200 taking advantage of a Red Cross shelter that had been set up Monday night at the Kansas State Fairgrounds, said Dicie Nicklaus of the Red Cross.
Nicklaus said close to 100 people stayed overnight at the shelter, while many others who were evacuated stayed at hotels.
Doug Hanen, interim chief of the Hutchinson Fire Department, said the main fire in Reno County stretches for about 7 miles and has a width of about a half-mile in most areas.
“We cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the situation,” Hanen said during the news briefing. “We do not have a complete handle on this fire. We’re using all the resources we have available. We’re doing our best – your local responders are exhausted.”
We cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the situation. We do not have a complete handle on this fire.
Doug Hanen, interim chief of the Hutchinson Fire Department
Wildfires also caused voluntary evacuations in the cities of Wilson and Dorrance in central Kansas, with about 400 people being displaced. Nicklaus said Red Cross shelters had been set up in Coldwater (Coldwater High School) in Comanche County and in Ford County at the Dodge City Community College’s Student Activity Building.
Forty-three residents of a nursing home in Protection spent the night in the Coldwater High gym but were able to return home on Tuesday.
A fourth Red Cross shelter was set up at the Hodgeman County Fairgrounds in Jetmore.
Fires prompted multiple road closures across the state. Information on closures is available from the Kansas Department of Transportation by calling 5-1-1 or visiting kandrive.org.
Officials on Tuesday asked the public and those evacuated to stay away from the areas still affected by fires.
The National Weather Service continued to discourage outdoor burning on Tuesday and continued an “extreme fire danger” warning for most of Kansas.
Vanessa Pearce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita, said high winds and low humidity – about 17 percent – were expected to continue across the state through much of the day before diminishing Tuesday evening.
“It will be kind of a reprieve in some ways,” she said.
But sustained winds of 25 mph or more were expected to return Wednesday, with no rain in the forecast until Friday evening.
An elevated risk of fire continues for much of Kansas on Wednesday and Thursday.
Counties with wildfires: Clark, Cheyenne, Comanche, Ellsworth, Finney, Ford, Hodgeman, Lane, Meade, Ness, Pratt, Pottawatomie, Rawlins, Reno, Rice, Rooks, Russell, Seward, Shawnee, Smith and Stevens. At least 10 cities called for evacuations Monday and Tuesday.
Clark County: more than 351,000 acres – about 60 percent of the county – burned; 30 structures and bridges destroyed
Reno County: about 6,000 acres burned; seven homes destroyed
Rooks County: about 10,240 acres burned; two homes destroyed