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Highland Fire Subdued Through Teamwork

Posted 3/23/2017

CREWS made this back burn on the west side of Sand Hills State Park on March 4.CREWS made this back burn on the west side of Sand Hills State Park on March 4.By Jared Janzen

RENO COUNTY—Burning more than 5,400 acres of land, the Highland fire in north Reno County several weeks ago was among the worst this area has ever seen.

Burrton, Halstead, Sedgwick, Bentley, Hesston and Newton firefighters all assisted in Reno County throughout the week.

The first three days it was mainly crews from Reno, Harvey, McPherson and Rice counties, but on Monday units started coming from across eastern Kansas as far away as Topeka and Kansas City. Meanwhile, crews in western Kansas were fighting flames in Clark and Comanche counties along the Oklahoma border and Ellis and Rook counties further north. Statewide, more than 700,000 acres burned that week.

From when the fires started on Friday, March 3 until the following Thursday, Halstead and Burrton had crews on-scene every day but one, said Halstead Fire Chief VanSchaick.

Harvey County wasn’t scheduled to assist on Monday, but then winds picked up and spread the fire to the southeast, and that’s when they got the call to send everything Harvey County could spare.

Monday evening was when the most destruction to houFIRE trucks extend along Highway 61 as crews monitor back burn protection.FIRE trucks extend along Highway 61 as crews monitor back burn took place, said VanSchaick. The official count was 10 homes lost, plus additional outbuildings. Halstead also deployed its Disaster Management Support Unit on Monday night in case any nursing homes needed to be evacuated. The DMSU staged at Inman but wasn’t needed after all.

Those living in the area were asked to evacuate.

“It was mass chaos for a while; I think that’s the best way to word it,” VanSchaick said. “It wasn’t uncontrolled chaos, it was just mass chaos with the evacuations.” He added that law enforcement did a super job assisting.

“They get big kudos from me,” he said.

At times, flames were moving a mile in four minutes. They reached heights of 100 feet as tall cedar trees caught fire.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like this before,” VanSchaick said.

Volunteers with the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations were instrumental in supporting the fire crews throughout the week, providing not only food and water, but also other items firefighters might need, like chapstick.

To continue reading, please see this week's print edition.