Precipitation, Black Hawks aid effort to douse historic Kansas wildfire


Firefighters grappling with the biggest wildfire in Kansas history got a welcomed Easter assist from predawn snow that blanketed the hardest-hit area.

The National Weather Service says about a half an inch (1.25 cm) of precipitation in the form of rain and snow fell early Sunday southwest of Wichita in Barber County.

Shawna Hartman, a Kansas Forest Service spokeswoman, says roughly one-third of that days-long blaze has been contained.

The fire has scorched more than 620 sq. miles (1,600 sq. km) in Oklahoma and southern Kansas, including 427 sq. miles (1,106 sq. km) of Barber County.

The office of the Adjutant General says six homes have been destroyed and some livestock has been lost. Three bridges and one railroad trestle also have been damaged or destroyed. No people have been seriously injured.

Firefighters trying to snuff out the wildfire iare getting help from military helicopters — and a potential assist from looming rain or snow.

Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard were deployed Saturday in the effort to contain the persistent prairie blazes.

Six homes have been destroyed and some livestock has been lost, the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office said.

At least two of the helicopters have 660-gallon (2,500-liter) buckets that will be used to dump water from local sources onto the flames, said Ben Bauman, a spokesman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office. The National Guard also was contributing a fuel tanker truck and another ground support vehicle.

Firefighters focused again Saturday southwest of Wichita in Butler County, where only 15 percent of the blaze that has scorched 427 sq. miles (1,106 sq. km) of the county was contained, said Darcy Golliher, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Incident Management Team.

The National Weather Service said the area where the fire has raged, which borders Oklahoma, may get one-tenth to a quarter inch (0.25 to 0.64 cm) of rain or snow Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Shawna Hartman, a Kansas Forest Service spokeswoman, said slightly windier conditions prevailed Saturday compared with the previous day. And while she expects the forecast precipitation to add welcome moisture, “it really won’t do anything to the fire that’s actively burning.”

Still, she said, “we don’t anticipate the perimeter (of the fire) increasing at all.”

The prospect of relief from rain may offer little solace to 87-year-old Don Gerstner, a Korean War veteran who along with his wife, Carol, lost their home near Medicine Lodge to the fire after the two narrowly escaped it.

Gerstner said he looked out his kitchen window Wednesday and saw what he described as a fast-approaching “wall of fire.” He yelled for his wife to get her pocketbook, and the couple fled with their dogs, at times driving through flames to make their getaway.

The couple watched from afar as the fire consumed their home of 54 years, much of the structure built with bricks from the county’s old courthouse.

Now facing the task of starting over, Carol Gerstner lamented: “At our age, it’s just hard to get used to something different.”

But her husband said he’s seen worse. “It’s not as bad as Korea,” he laughed.