STAFFORD COUNTY — A wildfire reported Thursday afternoon in the northeast corner of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge scorched about 1,400 acres on the western edge of Stafford County and a bit of Rice County, according to Bill Waln, fire management officer at the refuge. Firefighters remained on scene into the night and were back Friday morning to make sure it didn’t rekindle.
The fire was reported around 3 p.m. Thursday, Waln said. It was mostly out by 11 p.m. but firefighters monitored it until 1:30 a.m. Friday. At 6 a.m. they were back at the scene, “mopping up.” Although it was not 100 percent contained, crews were cautiously optimistic as they monitored every shift in the wind and change in humidity on Friday, using information from the National Weather Service office in Dodge City. Waln did not expect them to be done until Friday evening even if things went well.
Smoke from the fire could be seen as far away as Sterling.
After the fire was reported, Quivira officials requested mutual aid from Stafford County, which sent four engines. The Kansas Forest Service sent an engine and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent two.
Trained firefighters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cal Thayer and Lane Archer patrolled the southern-most boundary of fire perimeter Friday afternoon. Archer is normally stationed at a wildlife refuge near Kearney, Nebraska.
“I hopped on an engine with a guy from the Kirwin Wildlife Refuge in Phillips County and arrived at 8:30 p.m. Thursday night,” he said. “We got here just in time to help.”
The refuge received about an inch and a half of rain earlier in the week. This moisture may have helped keep the fire from spreading into shelter belts but it also created problems.
“It was a location where the soil was very wet,” Waln said. “The soils were so soft that we were afraid our trucks would be stuck, so we had to go indirect.”
Backfires were set to create a containment area with Rattlesnake Creek on the north side and county roads on the east and south. The Salt Creek area was on the far west side. The backfires were intended to move the wildfire gently into the Salt Creek area and keep it from moving northeast or south.
“We don’t know what caused the fire,” Waln said. It began in the middle of a remote area with no power lines. It is possible that lightning hit a tree earlier in the week and it smoldered until it became dry enough to ignite.
Waln said some of the most physically demanding work comes after a fire is contained — the phase he calls “mopping up.”
“We go back to look for areas of heat,” he said. That might be anything from a large log or a cow patty. Firefighters are on the ground, sometimes on their hands and knees, turning over these potential hot spots and hosing them down. They also look for smoke. “We want to create a cool edge 100 feet around the entire perimeter of the burn.”
Thayer and Archer anticipated at least two more days, possibly into early next week before the fire will be completely out.
“We have those heavier trees in there, and those are your 10,000 hour fuels," Archer said. "They have the potential to burn up to 10,000 hours.”
When the potential to burn is judged to have been exhausted, they said, that’s when the fire will be called.