Kansas wildfire largest in state history

ASHLAND - "I tried to take pictures but they just didn't do it justice," said County Commissioner Cory Moates. "There was just nothing, everything was completely burnt down to the dirt."

Moates, who also volunteers as a firefighter, was one of several local heroes who abruptly headed to West Kansas at 4:30 a.m. on March 8, to help control what ended up being the largest wildfire in state history. Crews from Baxter Springs, Columbus and Galena joined dozens of departments from several states in controlling the massive fire. Moates took a moment during the Board of County Commissioner's meeting Monday morning to formally acknowledge the local firefighters who picked up without hesitation to join the fight.

"I'm very proud of our guys and to be able to give back, after all the help we got after the tornados in Baxter Springs and Joplin," Moates said.

The fire consumed more than 1,000 square miles, spanning two counties along Kansas' southern border with Oklahoma. As Commissioner Moates put that into sobering perspective, that's roughly twice the size of Cherokee County. The blaze was one of a series of fires fanned by high winds last week that contributed to the deaths of at least six people and forced thousands to evacuate across four Plains states.

"We've seen here at home that you never know what it's going to be, whether fire, tornado, flood; we're all neighbors and we all depend on each from time to time," Commission Chairman Pat Collins said. "Job well done."

Jason Allison, who serves as the Columbus Fire Chief and the county's Emergency Management Director, said that despite the awful conditions that brought them all together, it was an inspiring sight seeing trucks from other states all working together.

Among the hundreds of miles of charred earth, one of the most devastating loses to the area has been cattle, with estimated loses reaching the tens of thousands. Many more are being put down in mercy killings, due the severe nature of their burns. Moates spoke of one cattle trailer they came upon where the driver must have seen the fire ahead and tried to turn around, only to have the flames come up at such an alarming rate that he was overtaken before managing to turn his rig around.

"We spoke to one farmer who said his family was only able to survive by hiding in the middle of a wheat field was still green," Allison said.

Over 70 structures in the area were destroyed, and nearly 750,000 acres are reported lost due to the fire.