How firefighters fought the biggest fire in Kansas history

A home belonging to Don and Carol Gerstner near Medicine Lodge that was destroyed by a wildfire is pictured Thursday. The Gerstners are the parents of Lawrence resident Kyle Gerstner. The fire that started Tuesday in Oklahoma has burned 640 square miles of grassland and destroyed six homes as of Saturday.

WICHITA — On March 22, Bruce Stansberry was welding a piece of pipe just outside Freedom, Okla.

He was on a small hill, facing south, when his wife, Dixie, called. She had been carefully folding egg whites into flour for an angel food cake, so it wasn’t until the local fire department called that she looked up through her kitchen window and saw the wall of flames.

She sounded hysterical, he said, and when he saw the flames he knew she was right.

“This isn’t good,” he said he told her. “This is a bad situation.” There was nothing but dry grass and canyons north of their house, he thought. And inside those canyons, like a long line of giant matchsticks winding its way toward Kansas, were scattered thickets of red cedar trees, which, when ignited, firefighters and ranchers say, explode.

Related: Kansas wildfire destroys home of Lawrence man’s parents

The fire had already consumed a couple of football fields of pasture land into flames 15 feet high, Stansberry said.

Seventy-nine-year-old Stansberry grabbed a shovel and a bucket and drove his motorized cart to Anderson Creek, where he started throwing water on the reeds under the highway bridge.

He was the first of hundreds of people to play the role of firefighter in this blaze. But he, unlike many of the other better trained firefighters over the next few days, had Mother Nature on his side: Strong winds were blowing the fire away from his house.

Those winds and that fire would, over the next couple of days, trap firefighters, kill hundreds of cattle, rip apart fences, knock over power lines, burn up tractors, eviscerate bridges, reduce more than 40 buildings to rubble, force the evacuation of entire towns and cause millions of dollars in damage.

Kirk Trekell, the fire chief in Alva, Oklahoma, a town about 25 miles east of Stansberry’s home, said he’s always a little anxious with weather like that on March 23. The humidity was about 10 percent, so the grass and trees were dry and brittle. The winds were blowing steadily between 30 and 40 miles per hour, with gusts near 60.

The Wichita Eagle reports that before setting out for the fire, around 5:30 p.m., Trekell checked the weather predictions on OK-Fire, a local fire website. What caught his eye was the prediction for the next day: Instead of coming from the south, the winds were going to shift and start pushing from the west.

That meant that, however far north the fire reached on Tuesday, it would turn into an equally furious but longer wall of flames moving eastward on Wednesday. So however dangerous the fire might be, it could be even more dangerous the next day.

While the firefighters kept the fire off of Highway 64, the rest of them had trouble even catching up with the fire. It’s not just the wind, but in the Red Hills there aren’t many roads. Firefighters ran into ravines too deep to cross and had to take long, circuitous routes to get in front of the flames.

Trekell and other firefighters finally found a bare patch a half-mile wide, he said, where they could take a stand against the fire. The vegetation was short and there was a break in the cedar trees, so they thought they might have a chance, wetting down the grass and bulldozing the vegetation.

But the cedar trees were burning so hot, he said, the heat carried pieces of burning wood the size of golf balls into the sky and the wind dropped them three quarters of a mile in front of the fire’s edge.

“There was literally clumps of fire dropping out of the sky, igniting all the grass around us,” Trekell said.

The smoke was so thick that the balls of flames would suddenly appear in the grass around them and ignite into separate fires. That spot wasn’t going to work.

But as they raced out of the way of what some firefighters described as a 100-foot wall of flames, he saw a pickup truck entering the place where they’d been, and heard the truck driver say on the radio that he was not going to be able to make it out of the flames in time.

“That did not look like something that would be survivable to me,” Trekell said.

“As soon as the head fire went by, we went back in to look for that person but the smoke and ash was so thick we literally could not.”

Trekell never knew who it was, but he thinks it was an experienced firefighter who escaped by driving through a fence they later found knocked over and parking in a spot with little grass to burn.

They managed to get in front of the fire one more time, right around dusk, he said. But again they were no match for walls of fire dropping fireballs from nearly a mile out. They had to retreat.

Less than an hour later, the fire had crossed over into Kansas.

Barber County firefighters are volunteers who are reimbursed $15 per fire for driving to the station. On March 21 they had been responding to a fire near Sharon, Kansas, for more than 24 hours when they first heard about the Anderson Creek fire. Rick Wesley, one of the three chiefs in Barber County, sent one man down to Oklahoma to help and, as they finished up near Sharon, called to see if they needed more help. The answer was yes.

“I figured it had gotten pretty big or they wouldn’t be calling us,” Wesley said.

As they worked with local firefighters in Oklahoma, they learned they were going to have to try something bolder in Kansas. As Tuesday night began to turn into Wednesday morning, about 25 trucks from Barber and neighboring counties tried to make another stand on Highway 160, about 30 miles north of where the fire had started.

Wesley made the decision to start a back burn, a decision few other fire department chiefs in Kansas would make, according to Jerry McNamar, the emergency manager in Barber County. Wesley hoped that by starting a fire of their own heading south, they could burn up all the fuel of the main fire heading north, so that when the two fires collided, they would extinguish themselves.

But it was a huge risk because there was a chance the new fire could get out of control.

He put a couple of men out along the road with flame-throwers and then followed in a caravan of about 25 fire trucks, 20 feet apart.

The firefighters had plenty of water because trucks that normally hauled salty wastewater from nearby oil wells filled up with fresh water and stayed near the fire trucks.

They finally got their first break in the weather: By early Wednesday morning the humidity level had risen to about 40 percent, Wesley said, moisture that would help slow the spread of the fire.

“Once we got our backfire going I thought, we have a good chance of holding it here, and we did,” Wesley said.

They had created a burn line a couple of miles long, and it appeared to be holding as the sun came up.

But this fire was craftier than any they had fought in the past, they said, and it slowly flanked them on either side, crawling its way, in the shape of knobby little fingers, up canyons, across fields and around the stretch of land they were defending.

“The wind was just pretty tremendous the way it was filtered through those canyons and ravines,” said 77-year-old Ken Leu, fire chief in Harper County for the past 50 years, who had come to help.

He watched the distant glow of the two fires colliding through the smoke.

As the fire slowly slipped past the burn line, the winds started to shift east until the fire was, as Trekell had foreseen the day before, no longer a few miles wide but now 35 miles of open flame bearing down on Barber County.

The fire had, like a Hydra, split into several head fires now, according to McNamar. As someone whose job as emergency manager was to think about the overall safety risk, he had set the process in motion to declare the fire a disaster beyond the resources of the county to handle.

If they already had trouble defending a couple of miles of fire with 25 trucks, the resources they were going to need to defend more than 35 miles were enormous.

Although the winds wouldn’t allow them to bring in helicopters for a few more days, Barber County officials decided to bring in two incident management teams, which included experts who had worked on some of the country’s biggest forest fires out west, but whose services had never been required on a fire like this in Kansas.

And in a stroke of luck, a group of fire experts was already assembled just 90 minutes away.

About 40 students at Hutchinson Community College had decided to spend their spring break working with a crew of experts from the Kansas Forest Service to learn about how to manage fires.

On the morning of Wednesday the 23rd, the team’s weather expert heard about the Anderson Creek fire on social media, according to the team’s communications expert, Shawna Hartman, and there was some chatter in the group about how it had entered Kansas. They already knew that weather conditions were extraordinarily hazardous.

“Training just got real,” Hartman said they joked with the students.

A couple of the team’s senior members left early to scope out the fire. They knew that it started in Oklahoma, 35 miles south, but as they drove west along Highway 160, they realized that this fire was not just long but wide, according to Troy Mueller, one of the team’s lead members. It stretched from Comanche County to within miles of Medicine Lodge, a town of more than 2,000 people.

When the team arrived, the fire was so intense it was creating pyrocumulus clouds, which form out of fire smoke but start behaving like storm clouds, a phenomenon that Mark Masters, a logistic planner for the team, had seen on fires out west but never in Kansas.

The team assembled in the command center that Barber County officials had set up in the new Annex building in Medicine Lodge.

They needed to know what was happening with the fire, so they would know how many additional crews to call, and to tell them where to go once they arrived.

But there were major obstacles. The wind was still too strong to get an aerial view of the fire, so they were depending on information from firefighters on the ground.

This meant that, for most of Wednesday, the team assigned group leaders to four or five trucks that would travel together, and exchanged cellphone numbers with a single leader who they would communicate with.

The county emergency manager had just moved into the newly built Annex the previous week, so the building’s communications were not fully operational. The building was built to withstand a tornado, which meant that cellphone reception inside was weak.

Wesley was trying to communicate with one of his men within eyeshot of a fire Wednesday afternoon. When the man didn’t respond, Wesley drove over, irate, but quickly realized that their communication system had failed. At the peak of the fire’s destruction, as it consumed tens of thousands of acres per hour, it had also destroyed power to the county’s two emergency radio transmitters.

A yeoman’s effort would restore diminished service, three hours later. But even then there were tens of fire trucks with only one radio channel to broadcast on. Everyone had to wait for a rare moment of radio silence to communicate, and even this didn’t work at some of the low spots in ravines.

The wind was slowly shifting farther east, and the crews on the ground, some of whom had now been fighting fire for three full days, had to continually move to new positions, as the fire crawled up ravines, blew across fields and rolled over patches of dry cedars that burst into flames.

By Wednesday afternoon Wesley and the other firefighters agreed that this fire could not be stopped no matter how many firefighters they had or what equipment they were using. All they could do now was try to protect buildings and whole towns as the fire swept by.

McNamar had already convinced Wesley that they needed to evacuate Sun City. It didn’t take much convincing for the fewer than 50 residents who could already see a smoke cloud that had begun to block out the sun, McNamar said.

As the fire shifted east, McNamar called an emergency meeting with the mayor of Medicine Lodge, the largest city in Barber County, to recommend that its 2,000 residents voluntarily evacuate as well. But 90 percent of the town’s residents stayed, he said.

Wesley said he let many of his firefighters go off to protect the structures of their families and childhood friends. At that point, Wesley and others had been fighting fires for three days straight. Their feet and eyes ached. They began to stutter and confuse words, but kept working.

“It’s adrenaline,” Wesley said. “You know the people out there. You’re fighting for their houses, their livelihood.”

When Bob Larson and his daughter, Charyl Zier, heard that the fire was heading toward Larson’s ranch, just off Highway 160, they packed up their dogs and their vehicles and drove to a wheat field, where they hoped the lush, green crop would keep them safe.

“You would see these masses of fire coming through the air . and everything would just light up and burn,” said Zier, who took a picture and titled it on Facebook, “This must be what hell feels like.”

Larson, 85, whose wife had passed away less than two years before, had built nearly every part of that house by hand with his wife. Zier’s husband and brother were with several fire trucks at the house trying to keep it safe, but through all the smoke she couldn’t see if they were safe.

A few miles away Norman Johnson and some friends had been watering around his house and sheds and mowing grass. But when they tried to leave via their 1.5-mile driveway, they were trapped. The fire had, in six minutes, reached them from four miles away, according to Johnson’s wife, Diane. The heat was so intense, they moved inside, where Diane had prepared wet towels for them to put around their heads and necks. Her husband continued to spray water on the deck until he couldn’t take the heat anymore.

They called 911 but because of the rugged terrain and an erroneous GPS locator, Diane Johnson said, firefighters never made it; a cousin, who is a firefighter, did come to help. The driver of an oilfield water truck later told her that, after the 30-foot-tall flames jumped over his truck, they jumped over her house.

She was only in the house for 14 minutes, she said, based on her text messages, but it seemed like an eternity.

Many firefighters positioned themselves between the town of Medicine Lodge and the fire, trying to beat it back. The fire had been largely contained southwest of town, in large part by the Medicine Lodge River, although burning embers managed to jump the river to a cemetery, the one vulnerable spot to the north. Firefighters stopped it from spreading.

Although the weather Wednesday night and into Thursday morning was still windy and dry, firefighters received one break: The winds eventually shifted, so that instead of blowing east, the fire started blowing back south where it had come from.

Although it left a lot of vulnerable land to the south, it also gave them a chance to secure a perimeter, just as a massive influx of additional firefighting resources arrived late Wednesday. Help continued to arrive for three more days.

By Thursday morning fire trucks from across the state lined up for a block outside the command center, ready to be assigned to teams that had been formed overnight to strategically target fire spots. Members of a second incident management team from the state helped relieve some of the Forest Service team who, like many firefighters, had barely slept.

Although some of the Barber County firefighters were about to start their fourth straight day without sleep, many had now gotten at least a few hours’ sleep even if it was on a cot at the middle school. And thanks to the Red Cross, the First Christian Church and donations from countless townspeople, the hundreds of firefighters and support personnel had a hot dinner and a sack lunch to take with them on their next shift.

In all, the fire burned at least 11 houses and dozens more barns, sheds and outbuildings. By Thursday afternoon the voluntary evacuations had been lifted, and the worst injuries reported across more than 400,000 acres were smoke inhalation and irritated eyes. It was, everyone said, miraculous.

The state’s helicopters were finally cleared to start dumping water on hot spots that the fire crews couldn’t reach on March 26. And by Sunday, March 27, many townspeople said that it was an Easter miracle that three inches of snow had fallen the night before.