‘Ball of rolling fire and smoke’: Wildfires rip through north-central Kansas

Kansas Forest Service estimates more than 400,000 acres across state were affected

By: - December 20, 2021 9:49 am

A metal welcome sign sits outside what was the Maupin family home near Paradise, Kansas. The house burned to the ground during wildfires in north-central Kansas. (Allison Kite/Missouri Independent).

PARADISE, Kansas — There’s almost nothing left of Deb Maupin’s home near Paradise in north-central Kansas — a bench on the front porch with nothing behind it but the concrete of the basement, now full of ash, scorched appliances where the kitchen was.

Hers is one of more than a dozen families who lost their homes to extraordinary wildfires that ripped through communities northeast of Hays last week.

And while she and her husband, Tom, plan to rebuild on the land — one of several properties where the family runs cattle — memories and pictures can’t be replaced. She said getting the call from her son Wednesday night that the house was gone as she and Tom stayed with friends in Russell was “devastating.”

“You think of all the things that you’ve had that are gone,” Maupin said, holding back tears as she listed the things she wished she could have back: her grandmother’s framed marriage certificate, her daughter and daughter-in-law’s wedding dresses, family albums and jewelry given to her for anniversaries.

Maupin said she was grateful nobody was home when the blaze swept through. When she pulled up to the scorched house on Thursday, and already knew it was gone, she was thinking about how Tom felt.

“I don’t know whether you just have an empty feeling kind of because it’s all gone and it’s sad knowing that nothing’s there anymore,” Maupin said. “And we had so many family gatherings over the holidays.”

The first thing she did was check on the animals near the house. The four calves and mule were unscathed, despite scorched earth all around them. Three of her six cats are accounted for, and a firefighter found the family’s dog in Paradise unharmed but covered in dirt and soot to the point she was nearly unrecognizable.

Unseasonably warm temperatures, extraordinary winds and weeks without rain left north-central Kansas at high risk for fires. Several blazes ignited Wednesday, and when an extraordinary storm pushed wind speeds as high as 100 mph, they became nearly impossible to contain. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly dispatched the Kansas National Guard with Black Hawk helicopters to help control the blaze.

“It looked like a massive, massive ball of rolling fire and smoke,” said Keith Haberer, emergency manager for Russell and Ellsworth counties.

Haberer, who has worked as a firefighter and emergency manager for more than 20 years, described the blaze as “incredible.” He said he had never seen fire move that fast.

The smoke “was so bad ahead of the fire that you could not see the flames right away until you got up closer, and then they went past you so fast,” he said.

As of Friday, the cluster of fires affecting Ellis, Russell, Rooks and Osborne counties, which the Kansas Forest Service has called the Four Counties Fire, was not yet contained. But given the low temperatures, the forest service said the helicopter support would end. On Sunday, Shawna Hartman, public information officer for the service, said the Ellis County portion of the fire was contained and service staff had gone home.

“However, the threat of hazardous fire weather is not over,” she said, noting the service’s meteorologist was forecasting increased winds and low humidity.

It looked like a massive, massive ball of rolling fire and smoke.

– Keith Haberer, emergency manager for Russell and Ellsworth counties

Haberer said on Sunday that fires in Russell County were contained, but crews were still keeping an eye on hot spots.

As of Thursday, the Forest Service reported nearly 400,000 acres had burned across the state in less than three days. The bulk of that — almost 366,000 acres — was in the four-county area.

While prairie fires usually form a line and move in the same direction, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said at a news conference in Hays, the Four Counties Fire was made up of several separate blazes sparked by falling power lines because of the high winds.

Darin Myers, fire chief in Ellis County, said some of his firefighters pulled a resident from a home before it went up in flames and described the blaze as having “erased” the house.

“Usually it takes 30 minutes to an hour to burn a house down,” Myers said. “It was just like within a minute. The fire was past the house and the house was gone.”

The exact toll of the damage isn’t yet clear. Counties will do separate damage assessments, including homes, businesses and agricultural land. Haberer estimated a dozen homes had been lost in the areas of Russell and Osborne counties he manages. Myers estimated nine Ellis County homes were lost completely. Trego County officials told Moran during his swing through the fire area on Friday that four homes were destroyed in their county.

The fires killed a man in Ellis County, according to the Associated Press.

Families like Maupin’s also saw acres upon acres of pasture or cropland burn. She said they lost 100 cattle. It will be years before the family is made whole. Rebuilding the herd, she said, will take time to ensure quality and avoid bringing diseases into the herd. The big problem, though, is that the fire burned off her winter pasture.

“Then the spring, you know, we’ll get rain hopefully,” she said, “and I’ll just pray for some snow right now to help get some moisture back into the ground.”

Somehow, though, four calves in a pen near Maupin’s home survived. The family has herds on several plots of land in the area that made it through. They have a herd that grazes on land owned by a friend, who herded the cattle into a soybean field where they were safe from the fire.

Haberer said communities across the area were raising funds to help families rebuild, replace fences and provide hay for herds without grazing land.

A stop in Paradise

Smoke billows from a fire crews worked to put out in Ellis County on Friday. More than 365,000 acres burned in Ellis, Rooks, Osborne and Russell counties last week (Allison Kite/Missouri Independent).

At the Paradise United Methodist Church, every pew was overflowing with hygiene supplies, clothes and food for those who lost their homes.

As pastor Stacy Ellsworth spoke for an interview, he received a handful of cash and, a few minutes later, a check for the relief fund the church is administering. Ellsworth said he’s trying to remind his congregants and other community members that he’s walking through the crisis with them and that God loves them.

“I think that the strongest evidence of that is just how many people God is sending into the situation,” he said, “and, once again, the generosity and the abundance that’s being shared into our community is just overwhelming.”

As community members got lunch ready for firefighters and sheriff’s deputies who were using the church as a command center, Moran stopped by.

“I’m Jerry Moran,” he said, “and I’m standing between you and the food.”

Moran, who flew out from Washington, D.C., on Thursday, joked he may need the people of Paradise to vouch for him if he’s criticized for missing votes on nominations. He said it was important to him to be on the ground in Kansas to see and feel what happened to people so he can advocate for help.

“So we’re here to help; we’re here to offer our sympathies, care, concern,” Moran said. “But these moments in this church, in this setting, is evident about how people step up to help people get through the circumstances that they’ve encountered.”

Moran later accompanied emergency responders on a plane surveying the damage and told a small gathering of officials in Hays the magnitude of the damage is huge — but so is the magnitude of Kansans’ response.

Maupin said relatives and friends jumped at the chance to help with supplies and clothes.

“I had a camera, and my daughter talked to this gal who bought me the clothes, and they want to buy me a camera to replace it,” Maupin said, fighting to finish her sentence without crying.

Maupin said several times she was grateful no one got hurt and noted that several families lost even more than hers.

Right now, she and her husband are staying at a house in town that belongs to family members. Soon, they’ll have to start rebuilding fencing to prepare for when the grass grows back and they can start growing their herd. And they’ll have to start hauling off the debris from their former home.

She and her husband are trying to figure out what to tell the people who ask how they can help.

“Sometimes you don’t know from day to day,” she said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.

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