Deadly wildfires in multiple counties continued to burn across Kansas on Tuesday, killing countless livestock, damaging structures, closing roads and forcing thousands of evacuations in an emergency one fire official called “unprecedented.”
The death toll remained at one: a truck driver overcome by smoke in Clark County on Monday night. At least seven injuries have been reported, none of them serious.
“We’ve had bad fires and we’ve had really bad fires but never multiples at once like this,” said Eric Ward, a fire specialist with the Kansas Forest Service.
We’ve had bad fires and we’ve had really bad fires but never multiples at once like this.
Eric Ward, Kansas Forest Service fire specialist
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Fire had burned more than 656,000 acres in at least 21 Kansas counties, state officials said. Eight counties were still battling active fires late Tuesday night: Clark, Comanche, Ellsworth, Hodgeman, Lincoln, Reno, Rooks and Russell.
Residents of the Highlands Area subdivision in Hutchinson in Reno County were allowed back into their homes after 8 p.m. Tuesday. An area just north of there, however, between 43rd and 108th streets, remained closed to residents.
“We’re not out of the woods, by any means,” Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve got to stay on top of this.”
The Federal Air Administration closed airspace to all non-emergency air traffic, including drones, in a 10-mile radius encompassing most of Hutchinson and an area north of the city, authorities said.
The airspace was closed so four Kansas National Guard Black Hawk helicopters could drop water in support of ground firefighting efforts. The four helicopters dropped 230 buckets – or about 138,000 gallons of water – in Reno County, according to the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.
Virtually all of Kansas was under a red flag warning on Tuesday. Fire risk is expected to continue through Thursday. Brownback urged residents to avoid roads near the fires, for their own safety.
“This is just too dynamic of a situation that we’re in now,” Brownback said.
Ward with the forest service said a national incident management team was expected to arrive Tuesday to oversee fires in Hutchinson, where up to 12,000 people faced voluntary evacuation Monday..
Out-of-state strike teams were expected in Dodge City by Tuesday afternoon, he said.
“None of those has happened before, so a lot of new ground for everyone,” Ward said.
Brownback said Kansas asked Wyoming to send helicopters for dropping water and South Dakota to send communications equipment.
Colorado sent two single-engine air tankers, each capable of dropping 800 gallons of water per load, to Dodge City. However, the planes can’t operate in high winds.
“If the wind is much over 30 miles per hour, they cannot really be effective,” Ward said. “The water blows away and becomes a fine mist and doesn’t have a big impact.”
Fires in Clark County southwest of Greensburg along the Oklahoma state line have destroyed more than 351,000 acres of land, with damage reported to about 30 structures and bridges.
“We had four fires at one point. Basically it surrounded the city of Ashland,” said Allison Kuhns, spokeswoman for the Clark County Emergency Management Service.
“It’s a miracle we don’t have any reports of damage within the city limits.”
She drew on a map a rough sketch to show how much of the county had burned. Except instead of drawing the parts of the county that burned, it was quicker for her to circle three small patches of the county that had been spared.
The burned acreage represented more than 60 percent of Clark County. The torched land and scattered fires were so large they were visible from space, according to the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service, which released an image from a weather satellite.
Two U.S. Army Reserve Chinook helicopters from Gardner will partner with two Kansas Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters out of Salina and two Forest Service fixed-wing aircraft in firefighting operations in Clark County on Wednesday, state officials said.
Chinooks, which are larger than Black Hawk helicopters, can drop approximately 2,000 gallons of water per run. That’s more than three times as much as the Black Hawks.
Reno County fires
Seven homes were destroyed in Reno County, where officials estimate 6,000 acres have burned. Much of that occurred as part of a grass fire in the Highlands subdivision. Local officials have been unable to get into the area to assess damages.
Seven homes were destroyed in Ford County and two homes in Rooks County, where an estimated 10,240 acres have burned, said the adjutant general’s office. A bridge in Meade County also was reported destroyed.
State emergency management officials had received additional firefighting resources from other states. A Type II Incident Management Team was expected to arrive from South Dakota later Tuesday.
Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said early Tuesday that the fire spanned 25 square miles in the northern part of the county and had escaped a containment line at about 6 p.m. Monday.
About 100 firefighters from 17 agencies fought the blazes in Reno County. Their efforts were aided by a shift in the winds to the north on Tuesday, slowing the fire’s spread. But gusts nonetheless topped 40 mph at times.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 Hutchinson-area residents were evacuated Monday night, with between 100 and 200 taking advantage of a Red Cross shelter that had been set up Monday night at the Kansas State Fairgrounds, said Dicie Nicklaus of the Red Cross.
Nicklaus said close to 100 people stayed overnight at the shelter, while many others who were evacuated stayed at hotels.
Doug Hanen, interim chief of the Hutchinson Fire Department, said the main fire in Reno County stretches for about 7 miles and had a width of about a half-mile in most areas.
“We cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the situation,” Hanen said during the news briefing. “We do not have a complete handle on this fire. We’re using all the resources we have available. We’re doing our best – your local responders are exhausted.”
We cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the situation. We do not have a complete handle on this fire.
Doug Hanen, interim chief of the Hutchinson Fire Department
Wildfires also caused voluntary evacuations in the cities of Wilson and Dorrance in central Kansas, with about 400 people being displaced. Nicklaus said Red Cross shelters had been set up in Coldwater (Coldwater High School) in Comanche County and in Ford County at the Dodge City Community College’s Student Activity Building.
A fourth Red Cross shelter was set up at the Hodgeman County Fairgrounds in Jetmore.
In Ness County, five houses were destroyed and three more were damaged by a grassfire ignited Monday by an arcing power line, emergency management director Chuck Halbleib said. About a dozen people were displaced by the fire.
It was just one of multiple fires in Ness County, Halbleib said. One of those fires rekindled on Tuesday and burned an additional 1,000 acres.
“They’re just mopping up hot spots” as the sun set Tuesday, Halbleib said.
Fires prompted multiple road closures across the state. Information on closures is available from the Kansas Department of Transportation by calling 5-1-1 or visiting kandrive.org.
Officials on Tuesday asked the public and those evacuated to stay away from the areas still affected by fires.
The cause of most of the fires is not known, but officials have been warning for weeks that high winds, lack of humidity and plenty of dry grass posed a high fire risk.
The National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch for much of Wednesday and warned of “extreme grassland fire danger” for much of Kansas.
Sustained winds of 25 mph or more were expected to return Wednesday, with no rain in the forecast until Friday evening.
Counties with wildfires: Clark, Cheyenne, Comanche, Ellsworth, Finney, Ford, Hodgeman, Lane, Meade, Ness, Pratt, Pottawatomie, Rawlins, Reno, Rice, Rooks, Russell, Seward, Shawnee, Smith and Stevens. At least 10 cities called for evacuations Monday and Tuesday.
Clark County: more than 351,000 acres – about 60 percent of the county – burned; 30 structures and bridges destroyed
Reno County: about 7,200 acres burned; seven homes destroyed
Rooks County: about 10,240 acres burned; two homes destroyed
Russell/Lincoln counties (Wilson Lake Complex): 28,600 acres burned
Rooks County: 5,000 acre burned
Ness County: 3,000 acres burned, at least eight houses destroyed or damaged
Lane County: 57,000 acres burned
Lincoln County: 49,920 acres burned
Ellis County: 3,000 acres burned
Comanche County: 151,000 acres burned