Wildfire Burns About 620 Square Miles in Kansas, Oklahoma - NBC Bay Area
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Wildfire Burns About 620 Square Miles in Kansas, Oklahoma

The flames forced residents of some small communities to flee their homes



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    This undated photo provided by the Oklahoma Forestry Services shows the Anderson Creek fire in Woods County, Okla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Hundreds of firefighters were battling a wildfire Thursday, March 24, 2016, that spread from Oklahoma to Kansas and has burned an estimated 625 square miles.

    Crews worked to get a foothold Thursday against wildfires that have scorched hundreds of square miles in Oklahoma and Kansas and led residents of some small communities to flee their homes.

    Strong winds were fanning the flames, and firefighters haven't been able to establish effective containment lines yet, the Oklahoma Forestry Services said. Gusts of 50 mph fed the fires Wednesday, but the winds were expected to die down considerably late Thursday, the National Weather Service reported. Smoke from the fires, which burned about 620 square miles in Oklahoma and Kansas, was reportedly detected as far away as St. Louis, hundreds of miles to the northeast.

    In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday the fires were largely contained except in Barber County, which has sustained the most damage.

    Brownback encouraged people to heed any requests to evacuate. No serious injuries have been reported.

    "We haven't sustained any fatalities yet, but that doesn't mean we can push it," he said.

    Crews in Barber County, which is southwest of Wichita along the state's southern border with Oklahoma, were fighting a 30- to 40-mile line of fire. Darcy Golliher, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Incident Management Team, said that blaze was about 15 percent contained late Thursday and is expected to last through Friday. She said there hopefully would be only a few hot spots to monitor over the weekend.

    "It will all depend on the wind," she said.

    The fire, which came close to Medicine Lodge on Wednesday, destroyed a home and an outbuilding on the outskirts of the Barber County community of about 2,000 residents. Voluntary evacuation orders issued there earlier were lifted Thursday afternoon. Voluntary evacuations were also sought for the small towns of Sun City and Lake City.

    On Thursday, Sherry and Craig Prothe were packing clothing and keepsakes into two cars at their home south of Medicine Lodge, where they could see smoke from the fire.

    "We're not trying for big stuff," Sherry Prothe said. "We're trying for the mementos."

    They said the fire reduced their elderly neighbors' home to just a chimney, but that they felt a bit more confident that their home would survive because it is surrounded by green wheat fields rather than dry land. But they said they hadn't decided whether they'll leave the home yet.

    "Our saving grace is the wheat is still green," Sherry Prothe said.

    With conditions "not as intense" and more crews arriving, firefighters were able to "get out there and really attack the fire" on Thursday, said Shawna Hartman, the spokesman for the Kansas Forest Service.

    In Comanche County, just west of Barber County, the wind blew embers that reignited the fire Thursday morning after it had been brought under control late Wednesday, said John Lehman, Comanche County Emergency Management coordinator. But the blaze there was largely controlled late Thursday.

    "The wind blows things around," he said. "It hits dry grass and away it goes."

    In Burrton, which is about 30 miles northwest of Wichita, grass fires burned one home and forced the evacuation of others, and killed several head of livestock, the Harvey County sheriff's office said in a news release. That fire had been controlled later Thursday.

    In Oklahoma, the fire was moving toward the city of Alva, population about 5,000, but by early evening, the flames had not advanced enough to prompt evacuations there, according to Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker.

    Oklahoma authorities said the cause of the fire was under investigation.

    In Texas, where strong winds and low humidity created ideal fire conditions, some people were evacuated Wednesday from their homes in Skellytown, about 45 miles northeast of Amarillo, but were allowed to return after a few hours, said Linda Moon, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman.

    The fire also forced the closure of a stretch of U.S. 160 and U.S. 281 in Kansas and briefly a section of Interstate 40 in Texas. Scattered power outages have been reported.

    Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; Melissa Hellmann in Topeka, Kansas; Daniel Houston in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.