As Fire Burns, Brownback Says Parts Of Kansas Are ‘Drier Than The Desert’

Mar 8, 2017

Fire crews battled hot spots overnight Tuesday in Reno County, but residents of one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods were allowed back to their houses.

No deaths or injuries were reported in the county, but eight homes were destroyed.

Velera Adams and her husband got the call, along with thousands of others, to evacuate from rural Hutchinson just as night fell Monday. She said they drove to a church parking lot just outside the evacuation zone.

“And we could see the fire, all along north of there,” said Velera Adams. “It was pretty scary.”

“Giant, red glow — and it was coming right at us,” Stephen Adams said. “And you know, at that point I was kind of glad we got out of there.”

Evacuee Stephen Adams stands with a bagful of medicine outside the Red Cross shelter on the State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson.
Credit Bryan Thompson / Kansas News Service

Flames have scorched an estimated 7,200 acres in Reno County alone and more than 650,000 acres across Kansas since Saturday.

When the wind shifted Monday night, Velera Adams thought they’d be able to go back home by midnight.

“Because we could see it moving to the east, which would have been past our place. Well, we slept in our van,” she said wistfully.

Spending all night Monday and most of the day Tuesday in the van was enough to persuade them to check out the emergency shelter set up at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.

“For the elderly, they have air mattresses for the top of their cots,” Velera Adams said. “I think it will be quite comfortable — much better than the van!”

Four Kansas National Guard Black Hawk helicopters buzzed Tuesday over Reno County, dropping 138,000 gallons of water, 660 gallons at a time, to douse the flames.

Erin McDaniel, a public information officer with the state incident management team on the ground, said people going in and out of the evacuation zone would have slowed the response.

“Anytime a person is spotted on the ground, that helicopter has to abort operations,” McDaniel said.

The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary no-fly zone for all non-emergency air traffic in a 10-mile radius covering most of Hutchinson and northern Reno County to make way for water drops. The airspace was still closed as of 9 p.m. Tuesday.

While the fires in Reno County prompted evacuations, fires in southwest Kansas have damaged a much larger area. Fires that began in Oklahoma and swept into Clark and Comanche counties have blackened more than half a million acres of grassland. A driver died in Clark County after leaving his crashed truck and being overcome by smoke.

Fires are still active in eight counties.

At a briefing Tuesday afternoon in Topeka, Gov. Sam Brownback said the conditions, with gusting winds, are still ripe for more fires.

After a good grassland growing season last year, much of the state has seen little rain since November.

“We’ve had moisture down at 6 percent humidity in the Hutchinson area,” Brownback said, “which is drier than the desert.”

With much of the state still under red flag warnings, the governor is asking Kansans to refrain from outdoor burning and grilling.

“With these wind conditions, it can just, you can carry an ember a long ways,” he said.

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @KSNewsBryan. Amy Jeffries is the Kansas editor based at KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @amyoverhere.