Had fire come any closer, ‘we would have been fried’

The survivors remember the suddenness of what came upon them: wind, flying sand, the sky glowing suddenly red. Flames.

The first thing Richele Calvert told her kids as the wildfire approached was “Pack up” to evacuate.

Moments later: “Get in the car NOW!”

Wayne and Richele Calvert lost their home north of Hutchinson minutes later. But they raced away, and know now it could have been worse. They are safe, and so are their children Wesley, 17, and Katrina, 13.

Danielle and Scott Tajchman were so sure they’d lost their home that they told their kids it was gone, to cushion the shock.

It wasn’t gone. The Tajchmans came home to find their home standing unburned, in a tiny lawn island of green grass, and upon the lawn, their two cows stood staring at them, having escaped the burned cow pasture.

She said the cows may have saved their home. She was not kidding.

“We’d been watering the lawn for several weeks, because the cows like to eat the lawn grass,” she said. “So when the fire was getting close, we just turned the sprinklers to stay on,” Danielle Tajchman said. “A neighbor took video of our 22 acres burning, and the fire coming right to the house, so maybe the sprinklers had something to do with it.”

Shelley Wilson remembers the Kansas horizon glowing suddenly red, and then the panicky moments, grabbing cats, the dog, her disabled son, Craig Smith. “Was I scared? Oh yeah,” she said. “It got close, and I got lucky. Had it come any closer, we would have been fried.”

She wasn’t fried, and she didn’t lose her home. But on websites from Hutchinson she could count the addresses listed as destroyed homes, and name off names of people she knows, including the Calverts.

Tajchman said they now know they can pack five kids, including a 9-month-old, two cats and two dogs and get out of the house in only five minutes or so. She was getting nervous as the red glow suddenly filled their horizon, but said her husband, Scott, who grew up occasionally doing controlled burns in Marion County, kept telling her to be calm.

“Just don’t scare the kids,” he kept telling her.

The Reno County Sheriff’s Office was to meet with them at midday Thursday to explain what they know about what happened. They then planned to take the families who lost their houses on a tour of the neighborhood that was hardest hit, Richele Calvert said.

The Calvert family is now staying with another daughter in Hutchinson, she said. Richele was able to joke about that, like resilient people can do. “My daughter is just having to take in her parents a lot earlier than she thought she’d have to,” she said.

“Mostly we’re just very thankful,” Richele Calvert said. “We’re thankful to have family to take us in, and we’re just thankful for being safe.”

A quick tour of the burned area north of Hutchinson showed how close many other homes came to burning. Many houses stood undamaged but, as with the Tajchmans, the fire line crept within feet of homes, which were often surrounded by landscapes where hundreds of acres had burned. The fires took out the tall grass and low brush so fast in the high winds on Monday that many of the green cedar trees didn’t catch fire, even as the grass burned underneath their branches.

In many places in the burned landscape there were tire tracks of large vehicles, probably firetrucks that fought the flames. At one corner in the mostly rural-looking area, fire hoses lay partially burned beside a fire hydrant.

Thursday morning Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson announced that another home had been destroyed by a wildfire north of Hutchinson, bringing the number to 10.

A total of 11 outbuildings — sheds, garages, shops — were also destroyed. The evacuation zone was discontinued early Thursday evening, Henderson said, though law enforcement officers will continue to patrol the area to maintain safety.

An animal shelter set up at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson has been shut down, Henderson said. Red Cross officials remain on standby at a shelter that has been used by some evacuees since fires broke out several days ago in Reno and Rice counties.

The Kansas National Guard helicopters, which had been dropping water on the fire from the air, moved west to help battle fires in that part of the state. Three Chinooks, two Black Hawks and two airplanes are now based in Ashland, state officials said.

The fire north of Hutchinson has burned about 6,300 acres in Reno and Rice counties since late last week. Fires remained active in five Kansas counties on Thursday: Reno, Ellis, Rooks, Clark and Comanche.

The Clark County fire was listed as 50 percent contained as of Thursday morning. But every evacuation in the state had been lifted. There were as many as 10 evacuations across the state at various points this week.

According to the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, nearly 647,000 acres have burned during the recent fires, including 502,000 acres in Comanche and Clark counties.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle