HUTCHINSON, Kan. (KSNW) — The Hutchinson Fire Department said a wildfire Saturday destroyed 35 homes, 92 outbuildings, and 110 vehicles, and the fire is still burning. The body of a missing person was also found in the burned area on Sunday.
Fire Chief Steven Beer said the Reno County Sheriff’s Office has taken over the death investigation and getting the person identified. The sheriff’s office said the man’s body was found near 4th and Victory. Officials have a good idea of who the man is, but they have sent the body to Johnson County, where there is better technology for forensic identification. It could take three days for identification.
The fire started over the noon hour Saturday. Firefighters were dispatched to the report of a brush fire in the 800 block N. Willison Road, east of Hutchinson, one mile west of Buhler Road. Investigators are still working to determine what started the fire, but they say it is not an arson case.
Officials are calling the fire the Cottonwood Complex fire. In an update Monday morning, Beer said the fire east of Hutchinson burned approximately 12,000 acres and is still burning. It is 70% contained. Beer thinks it could be Saturday before the fire is 100% contained.
Sunday’s snow was not as much help as people hoped.
“The recent snow aided in putting out the small, smoldering … fires that are typically located underneath cedar trees that are just smoldering, and that has been successful with that,” Beer said. “Otherwise, the snow really had little impact and really made the roads almost inoperable in areas with the heavy equipment — the fire trucks, the Evergy trucks that are out there replacing power lines.”
He said about 40 people are working on the fire’s perimeter, including the Johnson County Task Force, Kansas Forestry Service, Reno County Sheriff’s Office, and Hutchinson firefighters.
Beer said this fire is about two-and-a-half times larger than the Highland fire that destroyed Hutchinson homes five years ago, in early March 2017. Since the Highland fire, there have been other large grass fires in and around Hutchinson.
“One of the county commissioners asked me yesterday if, or a city council member, ‘God, I just don’t remember the fires growing up around here like they are now,’ and he’s exactly right,” Beer said.
The fire chief said there are reasons Hutchinson-area residents seem to have more destructive fires than other areas of the state. He points to planning, the burn permit process and fire regulations. He also said short pasture grass has been replaced with more cedar trees. Cedar trees make properties more desirable but increase the burn risk.
Beer said the fire department has about 25-28 sawyers who are trained to cut down burning trees and limbs.
“So today they’re going to be doing a lot, a lot of saw work with chain saws and heavy equipment and stuff like that on the fire grounds,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of that work being done to help mitigate potential fires down the road here.”
Beer said some of the trees can burn for a month, long after the grass is dry again.
“If we don’t take care of these smoldering trees right now … they’ll throw embers into the adjacent tall grass that wasn’t on fire yet, and we’re off to the races again with another wildfire.”
He also spoke of the danger of dead-end roads.
“Three of the key areas where we lost a lot of homes are basically dead-end roads,” he said.
He said dead-end roads make it difficult for fire victims who only have one way out and firefighters who only have one way in.
“It’s very dangerous to send crews in this area,” Beer said. “If the house is on fire in there and the fire wind switches, and it kicks up on the backside, it will trap our firefighters in there.”
Several agencies have been working together on what needs to be done to address the fire issues in Reno County. The agencies plan to present their ideas to the Reno County Commission on March 22.
We had the opportunity today to review the impact of the Cottonwood Complex Fire on Harvey County. An estimated 820 acres were involved in Harvey County, generally from West First Street to Northwest 36th Street between Wheat State Road and Woodberry Road (the Harvey/Reno county line).
There have been no injuries reported and no structures reported damaged in Harvey County (a previously reported structure was inside Reno County). However, this is not the case in Reno County. The Hutchinson Fire Department reported one death, 12,000 acres involved and multiple homes and vehicles destroyed. If you would like to provide monetary assistance to those affected, you can call 211 or visit www.unitedwayofrenocounty.org. Firefighters continue to work and monitor the acreage involved in the fire in Reno County.
We would like to once again thank our local first responders for their support in combating the Cottonwood Complex Fire. Every fire department in Harvey County responded, and we had reinforcements from regional partners, as well. To demonstrate just how far-reaching that support went, we even had units from as far away as Cloud, Mitchell and Lincoln counties helping (North Central Kansas Task Force 1)!
Grassland fire danger never completely goes away in our county, but we’re heading into some especially susceptible months. Please be smart about any ignition sources, including outdoor burning. It requires significant resources just to begin to contain a grass fire, let alone extinguish it completely.Harvey County Facebook
The Hutchinson fire chief said many firefighters had close calls while battling the blaze. He hopes to have them share their stories after the fire is completely out.
Beer said everyone has done an amazing job saving lives and saving property. He said the focus is on what was lost, but he also plans to compile a list of what was saved.