Hutchinson residents wonder if they have homes to return to after wildfires

Reno County residents talk about evacuation

Shelley Wilson and her daughter, Crystal Gibson, talk about the fire that has raged in Reno County, displacing thousands. (Bryan Horwath/The Wichita Eagle/March 7, 2017)
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Shelley Wilson and her daughter, Crystal Gibson, talk about the fire that has raged in Reno County, displacing thousands. (Bryan Horwath/The Wichita Eagle/March 7, 2017)

As one of about 10,000 people displaced Monday by a raging wildfire just north of the city limits, Shelley Wilson said not knowing what she might go back to was wearing on her.

“I don’t know if I’ll have a home to go back to,” said Wilson while standing Tuesday morning outside a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.

Wilson was one of nearly 70 people who stayed overnight at the shelter after the fire picked up Monday evening, forcing officials to call for the voluntary evacuation of between 10,000 and 12,000 people in the Hutchinson area.

Seven homes were destroyed in the fire. Residents of the Highlands Area subdivision were allowed to return home after 8 p.m. Tuesday, but evacuees in a large geographic area north of there will not be allowed back into their homes until Wednesday morning at the earliest.

Wilson, 49, lives in the 6100 block of North Monroe Street, just north of 56th Avenue and right in the heart of the evacuated zone.

With the help of her daughter, Crystal Gibson of Hutchinson, and her son-in-law, Wilson grabbed her 25-year-old disabled son, three dogs and one cat and left her 20-acre property Monday evening. The call from the Reno County Sheriff’s Office to leave came at about 6 p.m. Monday, Gibson said.

“The clothes I’m wearing right now are the only clothes I have,” Wilson said. “The longer they keep me out not knowing … it’s starting to get me. It would be wonderful to have a home to go home to.”

Retiree Sheryl Stessen said she grabbed her cat and bolted from her apartment on the outskirts of Hutchinson when she saw the fire quickly go from looking like a puff of smoke to a big, orange ball.

“Most of us are generally grumpy,” she said Tuesday. “I just want to go home.”

Andrew Parr was keeping things in perspective as he and his family bided time in a motel, waiting for permission to return home.

“It’s not too bad,” Parr said. “We know our house is fine, and there are a lot that aren’t. There’s worse problems in the world.”

Kansas National Guard helicopter water drops were expected to continue throughout Tuesday. As of late afternoon, about 50 water drops had been completed, according to state emergency management officials.

More than 230 responders from 116 agencies were battling the fire Tuesday, according to a release from the Kansas Incident Management Team and the sheriff’s office.

The U.S. Forest Service was scheduled to take over firefighting in the Hutchinson area at 6 a.m. Wednesday. As of early Tuesday evening, the fire was not contained, according to Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson.

Kenneth Patrick, a resident at the Mission Place senior and disability housing complex on North Plum Street, also spent Monday night at the fairgrounds shelter. Patrick was one of about 100 residents from the complex to be evacuated.

“I’ve been listening to the scanner app on my phone for the past couple of days,” said Patrick, who had Molly, his 2-year-old Maltese, to keep him company. “It was pretty intense listening to what was happening (on Monday). There was talk of housing being threatened and people being surrounded.”

Henderson said the Reno County fire spanned about 25 square miles and was a half-mile wide in most places as of Tuesday morning. About 6,300 acres in Reno and Rice counties had burned, he said.

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

Bryan Horwath: 316-269-6708, @bryan_horwath

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