By BECKY KISER
A disaster declaration request by Ellis County has been approved by the state following the two major wildfires east of Hays on Tuesday.
Mid-afternoon Tuesday, Gov. Jeff Colyer declared a state of disaster emergency that includes Barber, Clark, Ellis, Greenwood, Harper, Kingman, Logan, Reno, Smith and Stevens counties.
The first fire just east of Hays started about a quarter mile north of Interstate 70 near mile marker 160 and continued south across I-70, driven by a steady 21 mph northwest wind with constant gusts, as high as 54 mph.
“The initial call came in as a structure fire,” said Darin Myers, Ellis County Fire Chief and Emergency Manager, “and the city of Hays also responded. They did a good job on the south side of the interstate protecting the homes and woods area in that part of the city.”
Units from Victoria, Munjor and Ellis also responded to the blaze.
Blowing smoke and dirt forced the temporary shutdown of I-70 in both directions by the Kansas Highway Patrol.
As the first fire started to come under control, another wild fire was reported about 2 miles north of Toulon Avenue and Homestead Road in an open range area, quickly pushing south towards Catherine.
The craggy canyon land is not easily accessible. City fire trucks are not equipped for that kind of terrain, so it was up to the rural firefighters and their equipment.
“All of our grass trucks and our engines are equipped to fight a wild land fire,” explained Myers. “We can put somebody on the back in a harness with a nozzle and be able to drive them around.”
“Getting the initial knockdown on the fire in that location was almost impossible with those winds,” Myers said Wednesday afternoon.
Four Black Hawk helicopters were soon called in from the Kansas National Guard in Salina and Topeka to fight the fire from the air with water scooped up from farm ponds near Victoria.
Ground crews also did some back-burning in the area to create barriers to the fire.
The fire burned an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 acres, an 8-mile long path about 2 miles wide in some areas. It spread south nearly to Emmeram Road. Myers estimated there were 40 to 50 emergency responder units at the scene. There were also local farmers plowing the ground for other fire breaks.
“The help from the Kansas Highway Patrol, American Red Cross, Ellis County Sheriff’s deputies, Ellis County Public Works, Ellis County EMS, Hays Fire Department, Kansas Forestry Service, multiple surrounding county fire departments including Russell, Rooks and Trego, and the Kansas National Guard has had a profound effect on the outcome of this fire,” Myers wrote in a press release Tuesday evening. No houses were burned and no livestock was lost.
Crews were back at the scene monitoring hot spots Wednesday morning. The helicopter pilots, who stayed overnight in Hays, were called back in about 9 a.m.
“We put them up north again where we had a lot of trees, about a mile long, that were burning all night,” Myers said. “We didn’t want to put firefighters underneath the falling trees.” There were also water springs nearby which the fire trucks couldn’t drive through.
Two helicopters dropped water for about two hours and then had to refuel. By then, they were summoned to Greenwood County to assist in a wildfire that broke out near Hamilton.
Two firefighters were transported to HaysMed and hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation, according to Myers.
“It’s my biggest fear in the job, having one of our own get hurt. It wasn’t serious but they were still being monitored at noon Wednesday.”
There are about 90 firefighters in the six companies of the Ellis County Fire Department. They are all trained volunteers, who are paid per response call. Most work full-time jobs. “They’re awesome. They believe in their community,” Myers said. “They definitely don’t do it for the money.”
Back in Hays, Myers’ administrative assistant Meagan Carver was getting lots of phone calls throughout the day from people wanting to donate water and other hydrating drinks for the first responders.
“It was just a constant line of people driving up to drop off drinks and snacks,” Carver said Wednesday morning at the Emergency Services Building.
“It just amazes me how great of a community we live in,” Myers said. “Even all the way from Russell they were bringing in McDonald’s food for supper. There were multiple places throughout Hays helping; I can’t name them all.
“A granola bar or power bar doesn’t seem like much, but that provides a needed energy boost. And they need the water to stay hydrated.”
Donors were so generous there was more dropped off than needed. Myers said some of it will be stockpiled, noting “this is just the first week of the grass fire season.” Some of the supplies will be shared with the American Red Cross. Hays volunteer Pete Peterson was also on the scene Tuesday afternoon and evening, feeding about 100 firefighters.
Several Hays businesses offered free meals to the first responders Wednesday. Myers, along with firefighters from Ellis, Hays, Victoria and Catherine, enjoyed complimentary lunch at the Golden Q.
“That was the first thing I thought about after 30 hours out there, how hungry I was,” Myers smiled.
The next thing Myers thought about was “seeing my family again. Then I’ll grab a shower and a nap.”