HUTCHINSON, Kan. (KSNW) – The Hutchinson Fire Department said a wildfire on Saturday destroyed 35 homes, 92 outbuildings and 110 vehicles, and the fire was still burning. The body of a missing person was also found in the burnt area on Sunday.
Fire Chief Steven Beer said the Reno County Sheriff’s Office took charge of the investigation into the death and the identification of the person. The sheriff’s office said the man’s body was found near 4th and Victory. Officials have a good idea who the man is, but they’ve sent the body to Johnson County, where there’s better forensic identification technology. It could take three days for identification.
The fire broke out at noon on Saturday. Firefighters were dispatched to a report of a brush fire in the 800 block of N. Willison Road, east of Hutchinson, one mile west of Buhler Road. Investigators are still working to determine what started the fire, but say it was not arson.
Officials are calling the fire the Cottonwood Complex Fire. In an update Monday morning, Beer said the fire east of Hutchinson burned about 12,000 acres and still burning. It is 70% contained. Beer thinks it could be Saturday before the fire is 100% contained.
Sunday’s snow wasn’t as helpful as people had hoped.
“The recent snow helped put out the little smoldering fires…which are usually under just smoldering cedars, and it was successful with that,” Beer said. “Otherwise the snow really had little impact and really made the roads almost unusable in areas with heavy equipment – the fire trucks, the Evergy trucks that replace power lines.”
He said about 40 people were working the perimeter of the fire, including the Johnson County Task Force, the Kansas Forest Service, the Reno County Sheriff’s Office and the Hutchinson Fire Department.
Beer said this fire is about two and a half times larger than the Highlands fire that destroyed Hutchinson homes five years ago in early March 2017. Since the Highlands fire there have been other large grass fires in and around Hutchinson.
“One of the county commissioners asked me yesterday if, or a member of the city council, ‘God, I just don’t remember the fires growing here the way they are now’, and he quite right,” Beer said.
The fire chief said there are reasons residents in the Hutchinson area seem to have more destructive fires than other areas of the state. It mentions planning, the burn permit process and fire regulations. He also said the grass in the short pastures had been replaced by more cedars. Cedars make properties more desirable but increase the risk of burning.
Beer said the fire department has about 25 to 28 sawyers trained to cut down burning trees and branches.
“So today they’re going to be doing lots and lots of sawing work with chainsaws and heavy equipment and stuff like that at the scene of the fire,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of this work being done to help mitigate potential fires on 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 deal with those smoldering trees right now…they’ll throw embers into the adjacent tall grass that wasn’t yet on fire, and we’re off to the races with another wildfire.”
He also spoke of the danger of dead-end roads.
“Three of the key areas where we’ve lost a lot of homes are basically dead ends,” he said.
He said dead-end roads make it difficult for fire victims who have only one exit and firefighters who have only one entrance.
“It’s very dangerous to send crews to this area,” Beer said. “If the house is on fire in there and the wind of the fire changes, and it blows out the back, 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.
The fire chief said many firefighters had close calls while battling the blaze. He hopes they will share their stories once the fire is completely extinguished.
Beer said everyone did 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.