MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. – Weather conditions on Friday could make it hard for crews to contain a wildfire that has scorched hundreds of square miles of sparsely populated land in Oklahoma and Kansas, forecasters said.
Hundreds of firefighters have been working to control the blaze, which started Tuesday in Oklahoma and spread into southern Kansas. Smoke from the fire was reportedly detected as far away as St. Louis, hundreds of miles to the northeast.
The blaze has destroyed at least one home in Kansas, but no serious injuries have been reported.
The strong winds that initially fueled the wildfire died down on Thursday, allowing firefighters to make some headway against it. But winds were expected to pick up again, with gusts of up to 30 mph expected to last through Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.
Meteorologist Bill Turner said the big challenge will be keeping the fire from spreading again once the winds pick up.
"In fires this big, they tend to smolder," Turner said. "Sometimes those sparks will sit there in the ash and wait until the winds pick up and take off again."
Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday that the fire was largely contained in Kansas except in Barber County, which is southwest of Wichita along the border with Oklahoma.
Crews worked overnight to successfully save a home in the county, where the blaze has burned at least 426 square miles, said Darcy Golliher, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Incident Management Team. She said crews were hopeful that the blaze would be under control by the weekend, although it was just 15 percent contained Thursday.
"The big concern today is the winds coming out of the south," she said. "That is what we are working on."
In neighboring Comanche County, the fire was mostly contained, although crews were monitoring for flare-ups, said John Lehman, the Kansas county's emergency management coordinator. He said the concern was that sparks from still-burning trees and cedars burning in canyons in the area's Gyp Hills would blow up and ignite flames on the ridges.
"Up on top they feel like they have it," he said. "It's looking a lot better."
A separate grass fire that hit near the Kansas town of Burrton, which is about 30 miles northwest of Wichita, burned about 15 square miles before it was controlled Thursday. One home was destroyed and several head of livestock were killed.
In Oklahoma, officials plan to conduct damage assessments Friday to determine how many buildings have been lost in the blaze, Michelle Finch-Walker, a spokeswoman for the state's Forestry Services, said Friday.
"Due to the extraordinary firefighting efforts yesterday and a little help from Mother Nature, we didn't see any fire growth," she said.
Meanwhile, hay donations are being sought for ranchers whose land burned. The Kansas Livestock Association farmers' cooperatives in two Kansas communities are collecting the hay and that cash donations also are welcome.
"On top the new grass hasn't come up," Lehman. "All the old grass has burned off. But it's warming up so the new grass will come on pretty quick."