Exhausted firefighters worked to contain a massive grass fire that burned more than 110 square miles in south-central Kansas and northern Oklahoma, forcing people from their homes and closing highways.
Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of disaster late Wednesday as the fire still burned out of control.
Ben Bauman, director of public affairs for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said just after 9 p.m. Wednesday that the fire had split to travel around Medicine Lodge rather than through it. He said the fire appeared to be traveling north and south around the town.
Later Wednesday, the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office sent a release stating that the fire was no longer directly threatening the community.
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A statement early Thursday morning said that fires in Comanche County were under control.
“Conditions in Barber County have also improved, though fires continue to be monitored by fire crews. Power has been restored to Sun City and Lake City in Barber County, and residents who had evacuated their homes are being allowed to return,” the statement read.
One home and one outbuilding were destroyed on the outskirts of town.
Officials in Medicine Lodge had called for voluntary evacuations Wednesday night because of the wildfire, which has burned more than 50,000 acres.
Medicine Lodge has about 2,000 residents.
Bauman said he didn’t know how many people had evacuated the area.
As a precaution, the American Red Cross had set up emergency shelters in Pratt and Harper.
More than six county fire departments from surrounding areas deployed to the area by Wednesday afternoon, said Shawna Hartman of the Kansas Forest Service, who is serving as public information officer for the fires in Barber County.
Officials hope to have a plan in place Thursday to relieve firefighters who have been working since Tuesday to protect homes and structures, she said.
Ash from the grass fires fell from the sky over Wichita and filled the air with so much soot that the air quality reached unhealthy levels near K-96 and Hydraulic late Wednesday afternoon.
The smoke plume spread east and northeast over Wichita, said Jim Caruso, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita. The air began to clear slightly around 7 p.m., but it still posed a risk for those with heart and lung conditions.
“Anybody that is sensitive to smoke, people with asthma, should probably stay indoors,” Caruso said.
Dense smoke and fire prompted highway officials to close a 28-mile stretch of U.S. 160 from Coldwater to just west of Medicine Lodge on Wednesday afternoon, said Kansas Department of Transportation spokesman Zach Oswald. U.S. 281 was closed between Medicine Lodge and the Oklahoma state line. The Kansas Highway Patrol is allowing only emergency vehicles in the area.
The fire was fueled by strong winds and dry conditions. Wind gusts in the area crept near 60 mph Wednesday afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologist Vanessa Pearce said. Sustained winds just south of the grass fires were being measured at 43 mph.
Mark Goeller, fire management chief of Oklahoma Forestry Services, said an airplane was being used to dump water on the flames.
On the ground, hundreds of firefighters using about 65 firetrucks were working to contain the wildfire, which started in Oklahoma and burned north into Comanche and Barber counties.
The Sedgwick County Fire Department is among the agencies assisting with the fires. Fire Marshal Dan Wegner said a firetruck and two firefighters were sent to Comanche County.
The weather service said the fire started Tuesday night in Woods County, Okla. No injuries had been reported in either state Wednesday evening, according to local officials. About a dozen homes were evacuated in Comanche County, though none of the houses were damaged, county emergency management coordinator John Lehman said.
Wind speeds were complicating firefighting efforts.
“With this kind of wind, it’s going to be kind of bad,” Lehman said.
So far, all evacuations have been voluntary but strongly encouraged by officials.
Medicine Lodge Memorial Hospital chose to evacuate 12 patients to other locations because of the threat of fire and the dense smoke, Hartman said.
Sun City, which has fewer than 55 residents, evacuated Wednesday afternoon as residents sought to avoid the advancing grass fire. But winds shifted early Wednesday afternoon, pushing the fire east.
“Sun City’s being spared,” said Arista Christendon, a payroll benefits clerk in the county clerk’s office in the Barber County seat of Medicine Lodge.
Local firefighers “are exhausted,” Christendon said. “They haven’t had any sleep in almost 48 hours.”
Oil field crews have hauled water to the scene in tractor-trailers to help, Lehman said. Flames have occasionally whipped into canyons etched into the Gyp Hills.
Parts of New Mexico and northwest Texas also were at extreme risk for wildfires on Wednesday because of warm, windy, dry conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. The area covers more than 120,000 square miles and includes the cities of Lubbock, Texas; Oklahoma City; and Wichita and Topeka.
Contributing: Gabriella Dunn of The Eagle; Associated Press