Black Hawk choppers deployed against wildfire

2016-03-27 18:55
A fire truck from Argonia, Kansas, heads west towards Lake City to help battle a large fire. (Travis Morisse, The Hutchinson News via AP)

A fire truck from Argonia, Kansas, heads west towards Lake City to help battle a large fire. (Travis Morisse, The Hutchinson News via AP)

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Medicine Lodge - Firefighters trying to snuff out the biggest wildfire in Kansas history are getting help from military helicopters - and a potential help from looming rain or snow.

Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard were deployed on Saturday in the effort to contain the persistent prairie blazes that since Tuesday have charred at least 1 600km² in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Six homes have been destroyed and some livestock has been lost, the office of the Adjutant General said. Three bridges and one railroad trestle have also been damaged or destroyed. No serious human injuries have been reported.

At least two of the helicopters have 2 500-litre buckets that will be used to dump water from local sources onto the flames, said Ben Bauman, a spokesperson for the Kansas Adjutant General's Office. The National Guard also was contributing a fuel tanker truck and another ground support vehicle.

Firefighters focused again on Saturday southwest of Wichita in Butler County, where only 15% of the blaze that has scorched 1 100km² of the county was contained, said Darcy Golliher, a spokesperson for the Kansas Incident Management Team.

The National Weather Service said the area where the fire has raged, which borders Oklahoma, may get 0.25 to 0.64cm of rain or snow on Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Shawna Hartman, a Kansas Forest Service spokesperson, said slightly windier conditions prevailed on Saturday compared with the previous day. And while she expects the forecast precipitation to add welcome moisture, "it really won't do anything to the fire that's actively burning".

Still, she said, "we don't anticipate the perimeter [of the fire] increasing at all."

Wall of fire

The prospect of relief from rain may offer little solace to 87-year-old Don Gerstner, a Korean War veteran who along with his wife, Carol, lost their home near Medicine Lodge to the fire after the two narrowly escaped it.

Gerstner said he looked out his kitchen window on Wednesday and saw what he described as a fast-approaching "wall of fire". He yelled for his wife to get her pocketbook, and the couple fled with their dogs, at times driving through flames to make their getaway.

The couple watched from afar as the fire consumed their home of 54 years, much of the structure built with bricks from the county's old courthouse.

Now facing the task of starting over, Carol Gerstner lamented: "At our age, it's just hard to get used to something different."

But her husband said he's seen worse. "It's not as bad as Korea," he laughed.

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