The Ellis County Fire Department continues to monitor a grass fire northeast of Hays this morning. The blaze that originated near Toulon Avenue and Homestead Road is contained, but crews are continuing to monitor hot spots.
The massive grass fire was the second to threaten property near Hays on Tuesday, but it was by far the largest. At its peak, the fire covered an area approximately 8 miles long and more than 2 miles wide, according to a media release from Darin Myers, Ellis County fire chief and emergency manager.
The fire quickly marched south, pushed by high wind gusts that topped 40 mph. It nearly reached Emmeram Road, approximately 2 miles north of Catharine, before firefighters were able to head it off.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, but it appears it originated near the base of a power pole, officials said. The incident remains under investigation.
The National Weather Service had declared the region was at critical risk of grassland fire danger Tuesday. An earlier fire was reported north of Interstate 70 near Hays, ultimately jumping the highway near Commerce Parkway.
Both fires were estimated at least 90 percent contained by 9 p.m. Tuesday, following many hours of work from approximately 100 area firefighters.
“Controlled fires will be monitored throughout the evening hours into tomorrow morning to ensure the fires do not spread,” Myers said in the media release issued Tuesday evening. “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 was being treated at Hays Medical Center for smoke inhalation.
The community of Catharine was not evacuated, but safety officials had considered doing so during the height of the wildfire. There were no official evacuation orders issued by Ellis County officials, but some residents apparently left their homes as a precaution.
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 rapidly advanced south, crossing Severin and Buckeye roads in the vicinity of 310th Avenue.
“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.
The Kansas National Guard sent air support with Blackhawk helicopters.
Donations of bottled water and snack items from local residents and businesses had been pouring in to support firefighters throughout the day Tuesday. Myers said the fire crews appreciate the public’s support, but currently has sufficient supplies to support the ongoing grass fire operations.
Several Hays restaurants also have offered free lunch today for all firefighters involved in Tuesday’s events.
Ellis County officials also expressed gratitude for all the regional fire crews and agencies that rushed in to help. Several other county and city fire departments responded to the Toulon/Homestead fire, including units from Hays, Russell, Rooks and Trego counties.
“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.”
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 shortly after 11 a.m.
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. The County’s burn ban took effect Tuesday.