A day that had been declared critical for fire danger proved to be so when a large grass fire erupted Tuesday in northeast Ellis County near Toulon Avenue. It was the second significant fire event reported near Hays, with an earlier incident reported near Interstate 70 and Commerce Parkway.
At 5:30 p.m., the fire stretched approximately 5 miles across northeast Ellis County and was only 25 percent contained, Ellis County Director of Fire and Emergency Management Darin Myers said, according to a press release from the county.
The fire was 90 percent contained by shortly after 9 p.m., at which time it was estimated the blaze had charred up to 10,000 acres. It originated near the intersection of Homestead Road and Toulon Avenue, extending to nearly 3 miles north of Catharine. The small community was not evacuated, though emergency officials had considered doing so during the height of the wildfire.
Fire crews from the Ellis County Fire Department were expected to work through Tuesday night monitoring two fire sites, the first of which was located near Interstate 70 mile marker 160. The fire near I-70 was "99-percent contained" by 9 p.m., Myers stated.
"Controlled fires will be monitored throughout the evening hours into tomorrow morning to ensure the fires do not spread," he said in the media release. "At this time, the fire has looked to have burned approximately 8,000 to 10,000 acres. Firefighters will remain on scene to monitor flare-ups from safe locations throughout the night hours to maintain safety levels in the dangerous terrain."
Preliminary damage reports show all residential structures have been saved, though some might have received damage. Throughout the incident, one firefighter was treated by Ellis County EMS and is being treated at Hays Medical Center for smoke inhalation.
An estimated 100 firefighters from Ellis, Rooks, Russell and Trego counties battled the blaze in the northeastern part of the county. Heavy winds whipped the flames through rugged areas of the county where rural fire crews had trouble reaching the flames at times. Pushed by the winds, the flames advanced south, crossing Severin and Buckeye roads in the vicinity of 310th Avenue.
The Kansas National Guard sent air support with Blackhawk helicopters.
Crews struggled for many hours to get ahead of the fire near Toulon Aveneue, which was shoved south by wind speeds possibly in excess of 40 mph.
“Every time I think we’ve got the upper hand, the wind shifts again,” Myers said late Tuesday afternoon, as crews struggled to contain the fire near Toulon.
Ellis County officials also expressed gratitude for all the regional fire crews and agencies that stepped in to help.
"The Ellis County Fire Department greatly appreciates the help of all the local volunteers, local businesses, and farmers who have generously donated food, water, and support to all the firefighters working the scene," Myers stated. "The help from the Kansas Highway Patrol, Ellis County Sheriff’s deputies, Ellis County Public Works, Ellis County EMS, Hays Fire Department, Kansas Forestry Service, multiple surrounding county fire departments, and the Kansas National Guard has had a profound effect on the outcome of this fire."
Donations of water, sports drinks and non-perishable snack foods for firefighters are being accepted at the Ellis County Emergency Service Building, 1105 E. 22nd. No cash donations are being accepted.
The earlier fire near I-70 shut down traffic in both directions for approximately two hours as smoke billowed across the highway while rural and city fire crews responded. That fire crossed Interstate 70 and 27th Street, prompting North Central Kansas Technical College to close.
The wind-driven fire also caused temporary power outages for approximately 275 people northeast of Hays early Tuesday afternoon.
A burn ban is in place for several counties in northwest Kansas, including Ellis. Ellis County's burn ban took effect Tuesday.