Homes were evacuated in northern Oklahoma on Tuesday afternoon as a wildfire driven by high winds headed toward Barber County, Kan., where firefighters had just finished a two-week effort to extinguish one of the biggest wildfires in Kansas history.
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Once again, smoke and soot from wildfires pushed Wichita’s air quality into the unhealthy zone for two hours Tuesday afternoon, according to the state’s air monitoring network.
The most likely cause of the smoke in Wichita was the fire in Woodward County, Okla., according to Jim Caruso, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“It’s possible that the winds are causing that smoke plume to get this far east,” Caruso said. “It would be mostly likely that fire, unless there is some smaller grass fires around. I know in the Wichita area there have been a few grass fires reported. It has been a smoke-out here lately.”
By Tuesday evening, Wichita’s air quality had improved but was still considered unhealthy for those with heart and lung disease.
The Oklahoma fire was about 2 to 3 miles at its widest point, and an area of about 100 square miles had been evacuated in northern Woodward and eastern Harper counties in Oklahoma. The most northern part of Woodward County is about 12 miles from the Kansas state line, south of Buttermilk, Kan.
By 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the fire had grown to 15 miles long and had burned an estimated 27,500 acres, according to Matt Lehenbaurer, emergency manager for the city of Woodward and Woodward County.
“We are expecting to be here all night,” he said. “The winds now are moving out of the west, which is pushing the active fire into the unburned area. Right now, we have zero percent of the fire contained, and there have been some structural losses.”
He was hoping the fire could be contained along the Cimarron River in Woods County, Okla.
On Tuesday afternoon, the fire was being driven by 40 mph winds from the southwest, Lehenbauer said.
“They are extremely poor conditions,” he said.
Woodward Iodine, a chemical plant that is surrounded by fire, is receiving extra attention from firefighters, he said.
“We’re still trying to get more resources in here,” Lehenbauer said. “Our next concern is going to be a wind shift ... the winds are going to come out of the west and north ... and that will amplify our issues.”
About a dozen fire departments and aircraft are fighting the fire, according to Lehenbauer.
An incident management team, which is used to coordinate resources to fight large fires that cannot be handled by local resources alone, was called in to help, Lehenbauer said.
By 5 p.m., Barber County, Kan., volunteer firefighters, some of whom have been working for two weeks on putting out the previous fire, were dispatched to help Comanche County, Kan., with the fire that is “fast approaching,” according to Jerry McNamar, the emergency manager in Barber County.
By 7:30 p.m., more than two dozen firefighters and seven trucks from Barber and Comanche counties, including firetrucks, water tanker trucks and a private ranch truck with a water tank, stood on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line, waiting as dust and wind swirled around them. At that point, the fire was about 15 miles from the state line.
At 7:35 p.m., the Kansas firefighters and trucks headed south toward the fire.
Woods County emergency management director Steve Foster said sheriff’s deputies were encouraging the 300 or so residents of Freedom, Okla., to evacuate.
And at 8:15 p.m., the Kansas adjutant general’s office issued a release stating there had been several fires throughout Kansas on Tuesday. The Emergency Operations Center in Topeka was monitoring the fires as well as the one in Oklahoma.
A fire Tuesday evening in Wabaunsee County threatened the residents of Alma, prompting evacuations.
In Riley County, a mobile home park was threatened near Marlatt and U.S. 24. Between 100 and 150 residents of the park were helped in leaving their homes, and a shelter had been opened in Cico Park in Manhattan. By 9:45 p.m., the adjutant general’s office had issued a release reporting that the wildfires in Riley County had been contained and fire crews were beginning to return to their stations. Officials estimated 400 to 500 acres were burned.
Geary County officials report numerous fires, including at least one in the area of the 8100 block of South K-57, the release said. Eight homes in that area were evacuated.
In Morton County, fire was threatening at least 12 structures in the town of Wilburton.
Wabaunsee, Riley and Pottawatomie counties were declared state of disaster emergencies, and Gov. Sam Brownback issued a state declaration for those counties.
Fires in Rice, Harvey, Butler and Elk counties were also reported on Tuesday, along with some within the Wichita city limits, said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Metzger.
He said the Oklahoma fire “hotspot” was visible on satellite images.
“That means the fire is hot enough for the satellite in outer space to pick it up,” Metzger said at Tuesday night. “But the front is not far away from it.”
Authorities said their task was complicated by shifting winds. The wind initially was from the southwest but was expected to shift to the west, which could be more dangerous for Freedom. Late on Tuesday, winds could shift again, blowing from the north, Lehenbauer said.
Officials estimate the fire has burned roughly 20 square miles of rural land. Video from an Oklahoma television station showed the fire crossing a road and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air. More than a dozen fire departments and Oklahoma Forestry Services were fighting the blaze.
The town of Freedom is about 5 miles southwest of the spot where a previous fire started in March, then spread from Oklahoma into Kansas, scorching an estimated 574 square miles of rural land in the two states.
The winds are expected to continue until about 9 or 10 p.m. Tuesday, when a cold front is expected to push the fire toward the southeast, according to Andy Kleinsasser, a meteorolgist at the National Weather Service.
“But it’s tough to say how far that fire is going to advance before those strong northwest winds kick in,” Kleinsasser said.
Right now the humidity is “pretty low” at 10 or 15 percent, he said, which makes the fire travel faster. But it is expected to rise to 30 or 40 percent when the wind changes, and there is a 25 to 35 percent chance of showers between 9 p.m. and midnight, which would push the humidity even higher.
“But let’s say none of those showers or storms hit the fire,” Kleinsasser said. “That fire is still going to be able to drive (ahead) with 30 or 40 percent humidity. Maybe not as fast, but still will allow it to move if officials don’t get it under control.”
Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service issued an urgent fire weather message showing a stretch between Hutchinson, Medicine Lodge and south into Oklahoma that was labeled “greatest threat.” Winds were expected to be between 25 and 35 mph, with gusts exceeding 45 mph.
Kansas rancher Ed Koger said he could see smoke from the fire by about 1:50 p.m. from his home in Comanche County, estimating it was still 35 to 40 miles to the south. At the time, Koger said winds at his ranch were steady at about 40 mph, gusting to 60 mph. At one point, he estimated smoke from the fire was being carried 10,000 feet or more into the air.
Dawn Stull, a resident of Lake City, said her power had been flickering off and on, due to, she believes, the high winds.
When asked how the cloud of smoke appeared compared to that of the earlier Anderson Creek fire, Koger said, “I’d have to say it was about the same as what I saw the first day, when it was still down in Oklahoma.”
Dixie Stansberry, who lives in Freedom across the street from where the Anderson Creek fire started, said she is expecting the fire to pass to the west of her. But she has seen bulldozers traveling past her home, she said, and will pay attention. “It’s almost like the other one,” Stansberry said.
The sheriff in Freedom knocked on Vanessa Gerloff’s door on Tuesday and said the town was being evacuated voluntarily. Cars have been passing her house heading east, and she said she could see smoke out her door, but her husband, Gary, was out gathering the cattle.
“It’s pretty black,” she said. “I’m waiting for my husband to call.”
The Anderson Creek fire started two weeks ago on Gerloff’s land a mile or 2 east of the house, Vanessa Gerloff said.
Members of a Facebook group in Barber County that was created to share information about the previous fire have begun posting about this one. Messages from the group said “here we go again,” “radar is eerily similar” but also “at least it might run into some burnt ground.”
Contributing: Associated Press and Michael Pearce, Bo Rader and Beccy Tanner of The Eagle
Evacuation message from Woodward County Emergency Management
A wildfire was burning out of control approximately 10 miles east of Fort Supply burning quickly toward the northeast.
Businesses and residents in the area from County Road north south 207 and Highway 50 and from east west County Road 21 and east west County Road 32 should evacuate to the west. Travel west to Highway 34 then south into Woodward.
A shelter has been set up at the Pioneer Room at 1212 9th Street in Woodward by the Red Cross.