Eleven firefighters from Kansas City, Kan., went to Hutchinson on Monday in time to see a threatening fire erupt into a monster. The crew had been planning to start a 12-hour shift at 7 p.m., but
they were called into action an hour or so early when flames on the north end of town got precisely the right, or wrong, blast of wind.
“Everything just kind of blew up,” said John Peterson, a senior deputy chief with the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department.
Firefighters accustomed to house and building fires, and the occasional western Wyandotte County grass fire, found themselves gawking at towering walls of flames. At one point, the so-called Highlands fire, named for a housing division built around a golf course on the edge of town, swallowed a square mile of ground in barely four minutes.
At times, Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas Army National Guard scooped up hundreds of gallons of water at a time from a golf course pond, dumped the contents on the fire and swung through the rinse-and-repeat process again.
But the fight on the ground that night pitted the Wyandotte crew alongside a small army of firefighters gathered from departments across the state against the blaze.
“Trucks stretched out as far as the eye could see,” Peterson said.
Tankers cycled from hydrants and back to the scene, filling up pickup “brush trucks” mobile enough to scurry over the sandy terrain and douse sections of the fire. It wasn’t until about 3 a.m. Tuesday that a seven-mile-long blaze eased down from the crisis that threatened to torch tens of millions of dollars’ worth of homes.
Through the hours, firefighters worked to keep homes from turning to ash, and coaxed anxious residents to get out of harm’s way.
Soot-covered and soaked after their run on the prairie, the Kansas City, Kan., crew talked about a middle-aged man nearly frozen about what to do. Stay at home to look after a lifetime of possessions, or heed the order to evacuate? A firefighter grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him and insisted: You have to leave. Now.
Finally, with his dog stowed in his pickup truck, the man drove off.
“He just looked at us,” said firefighter Scott Bennett, “and said, ‘Do what you can do, boys.’ ”