1 year later: Recovery continues from damaging derecho-fueled wildfire

The derecho-fueled wildfire burned tens of thousands of acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and cattle and left two men dead.
Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 6:11 PM CST
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MILTON, Kan. (KWCH) - One year ago, on December 15, 2021, a massive derecho whipped through Kansas packing wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour.

The long-lived, damaging winds fueled multiple grass fires, burning more than 160,000 acres. The “Four County Fire,” determined to be the largest fire, burned 96,000 acres in central Kansas and led to the evacuations of hundreds in towns like Waldo, Paradise and Fairport.

December 15, 2021

Thursday’s gusty winds took Chris Pelton to that day.

“Kind of eerie, but it was a year ago today. The wind’s not blowing as hard, but it makes you think a little about it,” said Pelton, who lived through the Four County Fire.

Pelton lost his home, buildings and about a third of his herd in the fire. Only a handful of items were left salvageable. One of them is a stone honoring his aunt and uncle, who helped finance his first home.

“We were spare. That could have been burned. It could have got them all, but it didn’t, so we’re thankful for that,” said Pelton.

At Paradise Grain, Brynae Thompson quickly recounts her memories of December 15. Her parents lost their home and about 200 cattle.

“There’s a well across the street, and when the fire whistle went off, I ran over there and unlocked it and got it ready for the fire trucks to fill up. Basically, all that day, I spent running back and forth filling up fire trucks,” recalls Thompson.

While many people remember events from the day, recalling the destructive fire also brings back the memory of the support that came after.

“(The) whole state, I felt, wrapped its arms around us, actually multiple states. We had people come from Nebraska and Oklahoma, everywhere. It was just very overwhelming,” Thompson recalls.

People helped ranchers with cattle, donations of personal items, money and hay. One year later, the recovery process continues.

“New building we’re in here. New house is going up. A lot of fences. It’s been a full year, and at this point, that’s all I’ve done is rebuild from what we’ve lost, and we keep going. There’s a lot more to do,” said Pelton.

The rancher said rebuilding will continue because when you love what you do and where you are, you rebuild.

“A lot, a lot has gone on, and a lot has changed, and we’re all just still pushing forward and pushing through,” said Thompson.

Pelton said the current state of the economy has been challenging in the recovery process due to the rising cost of materials and other items.

Remembering those we lost

Two people died in the wildfires. Farmer Richard Shimanek died trying to protect his home from fires in Wichita county. His son said he was a family man and is remembered for his kindness. Derrick Kelley was found a few days later near his burned vehicle. His fiancee said he was traveling from Hays trying to get to Natoma. She remembered him as an amazing man who always made people laugh. He also left behind four children.