More than 500,000 acres of Clark and Comanche counties have burned in what is being called the largest single fire in the state’s recorded history.
On Wednesday, the Kansas Division of Emergency Management called the record “one it never hoped to see and never hopes to surpass.”
The total number of acres burned topped 650,000 around the state by Wednesday afternoon, and the figure continues to climb, officials said.
About 2,000 firefighters, some who have been working since Saturday, have fought fires in as many as 23 counties.
The wildfire in Clark and Comanche counties was still burning Wednesday, as well as in Ellis, Reno, Rice and Rooks counties. The Clark and Comanche wildfire surpassed the Anderson Creek fire, which burned 312,427 acres in Barber and Comanche counties last year.
At least 70 structures in Kansas have been damaged or destroyed, and thousands of cattle have been killed, authorities said.
The fire risk will ease the rest of the week but return on Sunday, when winds will pick back up, forecasters said. A burn ban remains in effect in Reno County until at least Friday, authorities said.
Though the last residents using the Red Cross shelter at the state fairgrounds have returned home, officials said, the shelter is remaining on standby until the evacuation is lifted.
Fires still burning
Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said Wednesday that a total of nine homes have been destroyed in the county by a fire that has burned north of Hutchinson for several days. All of those homeowners have been notified, with the Red Cross offering assistance.
Henderson also said two firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, which has burned about 6,300 acres in Reno and Rice counties. One firefighter suffered a back injury during a fall, while a second, a member of the Hutchinson Fire Department, was hospitalized after being splashed in the face with muriatic acid while operating a hose.
Officials reported that the fire was about 85 percent contained as of Wednesday evening. Some areas of the evacuated zone north of Hutchinson remained close Wednesday. Henderson said residents who have damaged or destroyed homes were being contacted but were not let back into the zone as of Wednesday afternoon.
Residents east of Halstead and south of 69th Avenue were allowed to return home after 7 p.m. Wednesday, including those who live in the Yucca Dunes Addition.
Jeff Deal, fire chief for the city of McPherson, praised the combined effort of those who have been battling fires across the state.
“I’ve been in this business for going on 24 years, and I have never seen such an amazing collective effort,” Deal said. “From fire, law enforcement, EMS, community – all the agencies that have come into play have been amazing.”
North of Hutchinson, areas south of 69th Avenue and east of Halstead were opened on Wednesday, as was K-61. At least one home along North Plum Street appeared on Wednesday to be completely lost except for its foundation.
Henderson said an animal shelter at the Kansas State Fairgrounds would remain open.
Henderson said the animal shelter was expected to receive some horses, goats and sheep on Wednesday. Farmers and ranchers in the state who have lost livestock during the recent fires are encouraged to contact the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for help in disposing of the livestock.
Residents were allowed back into their homes Tuesday night in the Highlands area near the Crazy Horse Golf Club north of Hutchinson. Black Hawk helicopters supplied by the Kansas National Guard retrieved water from a golf course pond Wednesday as firefighters continued to contest hot spots east of the course. Four helicopters were being used.
The Federal Air Administration closed the airspace to all non-emergency traffic, including drones, around Hutchinson and in Clark, Comanche and Rooks counties.
“The fire’s not technically contained, because there are spots we can’t get into,” said Doug Hanen, Hutchinson interim fire chief. “It’s still staying in the perimeters that we’ve had, but we have multiple spots to work on, which we’ll continue to do. If the wind changes, though, the fire could take off.”
For the first time in three days, Wichita wasn’t asked to provide fire crews and equipment to assist in the Reno County fires. On Monday, Wichita sent two squad units with a battalion chief to Reno County to help fight the grass fires, Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
On Tuesday, a firetruck was sent to Hutchinson so local firefighters “could get some much-needed rest,” Crisp said.
“We could have sent more, but they didn’t request more, and we do need to keep people around here,” he said. “We have staffing levels that we want to maintain here. The threat is real here as well.”
Towns around Butler County sent firefighters and equipment to help fight the wildfires, said Jim Schmidt, the county’s emergency management director.
“We’ve sent a lot of resources up to Reno County,” Schmidt said. “We’ve been real hesitant to send too much at once” because of the danger of large wildfires in Butler County as well.
“We’re kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said.
Andover, Rose Hill, Towanda, Latham, El Dorado, Potwin and county fire units have all sent people and equipment in response to requests for aid from Reno County.