- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. (AP) - Though some progress has been made to contain it, the persistent wildfire that spread north from rural Oklahoma into a sparsely populated section of Kansas is the largest one in Kansas history, officials said Friday.

At least 620 square miles of land in Oklahoma and southern Kansas have been scorched in the fire, which started Tuesday. It destroyed at least one home in Kansas, but no serious injuries have been reported.

The wildfire is the “largest in Kansas history and one of the largest in U.S. history,” the Kansas Forest Service said in a release Friday, the same day authorities sent a plane up to update how much land had burned. Officials also are looking at the damage in Barber County to determine if it meets the threshold for a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declaration, which would provide public assistance for damaged public infrastructure.

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. The strong winds that initially fueled it died down Thursday, and though gusts of up to 30 mph were expected Friday, the winds don’t appear to be “hurting yet,” said Ben Bauman, spokesman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office.

“Things really appear to be going pretty well so far today,” he said.

Earlier in the week, smoke was reportedly detected as far away as St. Louis, hundreds of miles to the northeast.

Crews worked overnight to successfully save a home in Barber County, where the blaze has burned at least 426 square miles, Darcy Golliher, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Incident Management Team, said Friday. She said crews were hopeful that the blaze would be under control by the weekend, although it was just 15 percent contained Friday.

“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 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 22 square miles before it was controlled Thursday. One home was destroyed and several head of livestock were killed.

In Oklahoma, officials planned to conduct damage assessments Friday to determine how many buildings have been lost in the blaze, said Michelle Finch-Walker, a spokeswoman for the state’s Forestry Services.

“Due to the extraordinary firefighting efforts yesterday and a little help from Mother Nature, we didn’t see any fire growth,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Livestock Association halted a call for hay donations for Kansas ranchers affected by the fire after many came in, KLA spokesman Todd Domer said Friday. The KLA’s farmers’ cooperatives in two Kansas communities are also collecting cash donations for to help repair tens of thousands of miles of burned fencing.

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