Wind carries fires across northern Reno County as residents evacuate, flames rage for third day

By John Green, Ashley Booker and Adam Stewart
Hutchinson News – March 7, 2017

Photo by Lindsey Bauman. Click on photo to view full-size.

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For a moment Monday evening, it appeared a wildfire spreading across Rice and northern Reno counties might be under control.

But a change in the wind rekindled the flames that spread toward Hutchinson and appeared to set the night sky on fire, sending residents fleeing from their homes across the north end of the city.

As smoke formed a cloud that covered the city, officials asked homeowners to evacuate in an area that spread from 30th Avenue to 108th, between Hendricks and K-61.

The Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter at the USD 309 Nickerson-South Hutchinson school district office, 4501 W. Fourth Ave., the Kansas All-Hazard Incident Management Team said.

A school district staff member working the office said 50 people had arrived by 9 p.m. Within an hour, the office was at capacity with more than 100 people.

“We’re kind of in limbo because it happened so fast,” said Mary Bunker, a Red Cross volunteer from Stafford.

By 11 p.m., the Red Cross had opened another shelter at the Encampment Building at the Kansas State Fairgrounds. Officials said they would open other buildings on the fairgrounds, as needed.

The Hutchinson Animal Shelter also had kennels at the evacuation site for displaced pets, said Animal Services Director Stacy Cleaves.

Wind and fire

A dry front late in the afternoon brought strong winds of up to 44 mph to reignite the fires, said Eric Metzger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Wichita.

Firefighters from across the state descended on Reno County to offer support and relief for local fire departments growing weary from a third day of battling blazes that erupted Saturday afternoon.

The winds carried the fire to the south, causing firefighters to set backburns in an attempt to keep the burning north of 56th Avenue.

As the sun set in Reno County, smoke that filtered the sun and turned the afternoon orange in Hutchinson actually came not from the flames in Reno County, but traveling on the wind from other wildfires as far away as Dodge City.

Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson reported 121 responders on the scene of the two fires in the county by 4 p.m. Monday. They came from 75 different organizations in crews working 12-hour shifts.

The came from as far east as Kansas City, as well as from western Kansas, said Kathleen Fabrizius, public information officer with the Kansas State Incident Management System. Three trucks from the Wakarusa Fire Department pulled in about 4:30 p.m.

A request was put out for assistance Sunday night through the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.

Also responding Monday morning were two Black Hawk helicopters from the National Guard, which dragged 600-gallon-plus “Bambi buckets” through area ponds to pick up water to dump on the fires.

“The helicopters were requested due to the difficult terrain, safety of firefighters and to speed up the ability to put water on the fire,” Henderson said.

Black Hawks respond

The helicopters arrived about 8:30 a.m., officials said, and continued targeted drops throughout the day. A notice was put out shortly after 5:30 p.m. that the air water drops were completed for the day.

In Reno County, they primarily drenched burning tree rows on the west side of the Highlands, then moved north to help fight fires in southern Rice County, said Reno County Fire District 3 Chief Bobbie White.

By 4 p.m., the fire seemed under control.

“The fire is not spreading at this point,” said Interim Hutchinson Fire Chief Doug Hanen. “With the winds shifting, we’re not sure what we’ll be dealing with. We don’t have an active fire burning, but hotspots are a major concern.”

But at 6:21 p.m., the fire erupted that would spread through the night and send people from their homes, closing schools across the area.

Confusion took hold across the city as a mass notification erroneously told all residents in the city to evacuate. That was later limited to areas in the northern end of the city.

Today marks another red flag warning for fires across southwest Kansas. Although winds are expected to be a little milder than Monday, officials say fires could continue to reignite.

A weekend of fires

Officials estimated the Jupiter Hills fire in northeast Reno County consumed about 1,200 acres, including most of the Sand Hills State Park. It was considered 95 percent contained at the afternoon press briefing.

The estimate of acreage burned in the Highlands fire, including acreage in both Reno and Rice counties, was cut back from 2,700 acres to 2,000 acres. Officials, however, could not place a containment figure on that fire.

That Highlands fire, which started Sunday near 82nd Avenue and Hendricks, had burned up to W Avenue in Rice County, about 2 miles north of the Reno County line, Hanen said.

“We’ve been going at it hard since Friday,” Hanen said. “We’re grateful for the resources coming in. Our biggest concern, besides the wind, is the extremely low humidity. It’s currently at 16 percent and we hear it could go as low as 10 percent tomorrow. With the wind, the dry conditions are a huge factor.”

Three sheds were damaged in the Jupiter Hills fire and three homes damaged in the Highlands. Damage to two of the homes was primarily exterior, with one home having more extensive damage because the fire reached inside.

No injuries to residents, firefighters or animals were reported, Hanen said.

An emergency declaration issued Sunday by the governor allowed the county to request the helicopters, which an official previously told The News cost about $50,000 a day each to operate.

Reno County officials used a phone and text-message emergency alert to warn residents in the Highlands area, a housing subdivision on a golf course north of 95th Avenue between Hendricks and Monroe, of the planned water drops.

The alert advised residents to stay indoors and keep pets inside until officials issued an all-clear, warning that any public interference or drones in the area would cancel the operation. Officials closed the air space in a 15-square-mile area and up to 1,000 feet above ground level.

Officials did not have details on how many airdrops were made.

What homeowners can do

Fire officials advised residents anywhere under high fire danger “to remove anything combustible.”

“If there’s stuff been there all winter, leaves under patio furniture, all it takes is an ember in those leaves, particularly if it’s combustible furniture,” White said. “Ensure there’s a 1,500-foot clear area, with all combustibles cleared away. Mow things down, to keep vegetation management.”

A huge help with the Highlands fire, Hanen said, was people turning on their yard sprinklers.

“Search online for defensible space or fireline.org, which gives specific information on how to prepare a home and better survive wildfires.”

Besides Reno County, fire crews were fighting wildfires on Monday in Rooks, Sheridan, Ness, Ford and Meade counties, Fabrizius said.

 

Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
http://www.ksffa.com
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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