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Kansas’ biggest fire ever was named after chief from town of 8 people

Raw footage: Battling wildfires across southwest Kansas in 2017

Firefighters from across the state battle wildfires Monday night and Tuesday morning near the towns of Protection and Ashland. Thousands of acres were burned by wind driven fires. (video by Bo Rader / kansas.com / March 6, 2017)
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Firefighters from across the state battle wildfires Monday night and Tuesday morning near the towns of Protection and Ashland. Thousands of acres were burned by wind driven fires. (video by Bo Rader / kansas.com / March 6, 2017)

When Charlie Starbuck finally arrived at the scene of the fire, about 11:45 a.m., in northern Oklahoma, and took control of the management of what would become the largest fire in Kansas history, he didn’t hesitate to call the state for help.

The fire was already several miles long, and though the weather service said the wind was 30 to 40 miles per hour, Starbuck said he couldn’t catch up to it driving 50 or 60 miles per hour.

Drew Daily, a state firefighter who took command with Starbuck, had the Oklahoma fire chiefs in that area on speed dial, ready for something to happen. So when Starbuck described the fire, one of Daily's colleagues called and asked for a plane to help with the firefighting. 

But to send out a plane, the dispatchers needed to write down a fire name. They didn't know much about the fire yet, so they just called it Starbuck.

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That’s how the biggest fire in Kansas state history got its name from the fire chief of Slapout, Okla., a town of only eight residents but 20 volunteer firefighters.

“You can’t even call it a town,” Starbuck said. “It’s a gas station on the side of the road.”

You can’t even call it a town. It’s a gas station on the side of the road.

Charlie Starbuck, fire chief of Slapout, Okla.

His unit draws from the surrounding area, including five women, one of whom is Starbuck’s wife.

That’s not enough to fight many wildfires, let alone the kind of fire they faced that day. “On days like that, usually about one to two counties deep automatically respond,” Starbuck said. “So we might have 70 trucks on a fire, normally.”

Oklahoma sent a single state crew, he said, and a plane. Starbuck received a little assistance from a Texas county to the west, but not enough to make up for what he was missing. And on top of that, a separate 3,000-acre fire popped up just south of the main fire, which split his crew even further.

Firefighters from across the state battle wildfires Monday night and Tuesday morning near the towns of Protection and Ashland. Thousands of acres were burned by wind driven fires. (video by Bo Rader / kansas.com / March 6, 2017)

“If somebody had called a mayday, if a truck broke down, I don’t think I would’ve had the resources or capabilities to get to them,” Starbuck said. “It’s hard to send somebody else into that type of conditions; then you end up with two trucks in trouble.”

“I had to make a lot of decisions to pour a lot of resources back to safety.”

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So they did what they could do, mostly trying to protect buildings. Through a little bit of luck, the fire didn’t hit the towns of Knowles and Gate, which had been evacuated.

But there was “a big dead hole of wide open country” north of the fire, Starbuck said, which led to the Cimarron River and then into Kansas.

So Daily said he notified the Kansas Forest Service that the fire was coming their way.

But the attention of the forest service and Kansas Emergency management was focused on a different fire, in Reno County, which at the time they thought was under control but which would, in the next few hours, escape and threaten hundreds of homes in Hutchinson.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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