State

From this Kansas town, ‘it looked like the whole world was on fire’

The tiny Kansas town that burned the most

The town of Englewood, population of about 80, probably suffered the most damage per capita of any town in Kansas in the largest wildfire to ever burn across the state. (March 8, 2017)
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The town of Englewood, population of about 80, probably suffered the most damage per capita of any town in Kansas in the largest wildfire to ever burn across the state. (March 8, 2017)

Englewood, a town of about 80 people, is the tiniest town in one of the least populated counties in the state, Clark County, which happened to receive the brunt of the worst fire to ever hit Kansas.

It lost power, water and more than 10 percent of its houses, in addition to several of the only businesses in town, including a pheasant farm and the town’s grain weigh station.

Englewood is the sort of town that drafted Olen Whisenhunt into the role of mayor three years ago, he said.

So on Wednesday, as he surveyed the damage from the largest fire in state history, he often referred to the crumbled houses by the name of the person who used to live there. There was Jerry and his son Monty, who lived catty-corner from each other. Gone. Kenneth Bouts, whose house sits on the north side of town, a smoky heap of rubble. And Mary Cox, who lived on the outskirts of town, whose two chimneys were mostly still intact but not much else.

There were fewer than 70 houses in 2010. And although Whisenhunt hadn’t counted them all up, he drove by about 10 destroyed houses in or near town on Wednesday, in addition to another dozen or so garages and barns, not to mention the cars and tractors inside.

The town was evacuated but Whisenhunt stuck around, trying to make sure everyone had left, when the fire hit the north side of town.

JD Heitman, a volunteer firefighter, describes what fighting the fire was like near Protection, Kansas. (Oliver Morrison/The Wichita Eagle)

More than 60 percent of Clark County – 350,000 acres – burned in the fire, and its population center, Ashland, was evacuated. The fire came up to the edge of Ashland but circled around it.

But the fire took a chunk out of Engelwood on its way through town.

“It looked like the whole world was on fire for a little while,” Whisenhurst said. “It was pretty scary and pretty dramatic.”

The fire entered from the north through an overgrown creek and through the old town pool house. Then it blew up to the green lawn at the town’s center, and under the town’s one playground slide, when it turned both west and east.

To the west, it burned down Brenda Mills’ garage. The fire was so hot it warped the siding of her house and started to melt shingles on the roof. But some of the town’s five firetrucks managed to keep several inches of green grass between the fire and her house.

To the east it burned through four or five houses – mostly belonging to people who no longer live there but keep the houses so they have a place to stay during hunting season – and then it turned toward Gary Wood’s house.

The fire had gotten so hot in front that the chrome from the wheels of Wood’s car melted into a puddle and recongealed, before the fire burned down his house, too. It also burned the pheasant farm he runs with two other people.

The nets that prevented the thousands of pheasants from flying away fell down. The brush that they lived in had burned up, and all that was left were tiny piles of rubble, which Whisenhust suspected were once pheasants themselves.

After looking at Wood’s house, Whisenhunt stopped, on his tour of the damage, and pulled his truck up to Rod and Joanne Rambo, who were driving in the opposite direction, and asked, “Did you fare all right?”

“Have you driven out there?” asked Joanne. “It burned all the yard and grass and stuff but left all the buildings. The fields are bare. Your house is OK?”

“Our house is OK,” Whisenhunt said. “Rick’s shop burned down.”

“Did he have a lot of tools and stuff?” she asked.

“He had a lot of tools in there and his new motorcycle and a new Mustang,” Whisenhunt said.

“There are still small burning fires,” she said. “We just went out by Mary Cox’s.”

“Yeah, ain’t that awful,” Whisenhunt said.

“That’s terrible, that’s just terrible,” she said, before heading on her way.

As people approached Whisenhunt or called him on the phone, they talked about the damage or asked for assistance, or noted that they were being told to boil their water but they didn’t have any electricity either. They shared war stories.

Whisenhunt drove by Raymond Vera, a volunteer firefighter who works for a feed company in Ashland. Vera started telling him some firefighting stories.

“When we got paged out we were at Frosty’s, saved that house, and then come in. … We got Chris Kaiser’s kind of halfway saved, and then trucks over there behind Brenda’s and Danny’s. … Everywhere you looked, the house would be on fire.”

But there was so much smoke and dust he couldn’t tell which houses had burned down and which ones had made it, including his own.

A tree had nearly fallen on top of it, but Vera’s house was one of the ones that made it.

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)

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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