Flames and smoke envelope a grain elevator in Sitka, Kan., early Tuesday, March 7, 2017. Grass fires fanned by gusting winds scorched swaths of Kansas grassland Monday, forcing the evacuations of several towns and the closure of some roads. (Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Wind conditions should ease, helping crews battle wildfires

March 08, 2017 - 8:50 am

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Winds are expected to slow down Wednesday, but weather conditions are still not ideal for emergency crews battling wildfires in four states that have killed six people and destroyed hundreds of square miles of land.

Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief for the Oklahoma-based Storm Prediction Center, said Tuesday that the powerful wind gusts that fanned the wildfires in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas should ease to about 10 to 20 mph on Wednesday. He said temperatures should peak in the 70s, with afternoon humidity low.

"These conditions will make it somewhat easier for firefighting efforts, but far from perfect. The fires still will be moving," Bunting told The Associated Press. "The ideal situation is that it would turn cold and rain, and unfortunately that's not going to happen."

In addition to those four states, conditions were ripe for fires in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. That followed powerful thunderstorms that moved through the middle of the country late Monday and early Tuesday, spawning dozens of suspected tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.

Kansas wildfires have burned about 1,025 square miles of land and killed one person. The Kansas Highway Patrol said Corey Holt, of Oklahoma City, died Monday when his tractor-trailer jackknifed as he tried to back up because of poor visibility on a Kansas highway, and he succumbed to smoke after getting out of his vehicle. Two SUVs crashed into the truck, injuring six people, state trooper Michael Racy said.

About half of the state's charred land is in Clark County, along the state's southern border with Oklahoma, where 548 square miles have burned and about 30 homes have been destroyed, said Millie Fudge, the county's emergency manager. She said planes will go up Wednesday to evaluate the damage while helicopters will dump water on the flames. She anticipated that the estimates of burned land would increase.

"Pretty much when you look at the map, the county is burned," she said. "There is not much that hasn't burned. Fortunately all three cities in Clark County have not been burned. It has come close."

Another 235 square miles burned in neighboring Comanche County, Kansas, with smaller amounts of burned land from separate fires spread among six other counties.

The large Kansas fire started in Oklahoma, where it burned an estimated 390 square miles in Beaver County. Officials said a separate blaze scorched more than 155 square miles of land in neighboring Harper County, Oklahoma, and was a factor in the death of a woman who had a heart attack while trying to keep her farm near Buffalo from burning.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in 22 counties due to the wildfires.

The largest evacuations elsewhere were in Reno County, Kansas, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily left their homes Monday night, said Katie Horner, a state Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman. She said 66 people were in shelters Tuesday in Hutchinson, 40 miles northwest of Wichita.

Several hundred more people evacuated their homes in Russell, Ellsworth and Comanche counties, in central Kansas.

In the Texas Panhandle, three fires burned about 500 square miles of land and killed at least four people. One of them near Amarillo was fully contained by late Tuesday afternoon, while a larger fire in the northeast corner of the Panhandle near the Oklahoma border was 50 percent contained, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. That larger fire was responsible for a death on Monday, authorities said.

A wildfire in Gray County, also in the Texas Panhandle, killed three ranch hands trying to save cattle, said Judge Richard Peet, the county's head administrator. One of the three apparently died of smoke inhalation Monday night and the other two were badly burned and died on the way to hospitals, he said.

Forest Service spokesman Phillip Truitt said as many as four firefighters were hurt battling the fires Monday. He provided no details on their conditions Tuesday morning.

In northeastern Colorado near the Nebraska border, firefighters battled a blaze that burned more than 45 square miles and was 50 percent contained Tuesday. Officials said the fire had destroyed at least five homes and 15 outbuildings, with no serious injuries.

Dry conditions and strong winds had put the region at risk for wildfires. All of eastern Colorado is classified as either moderately or abnormally dry along with major parts of Kansas, almost all of Oklahoma and some of northern Texas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

After several years of drought, Kansas received good to great rain the last two summers. But the taller grass provides more fuel to burn.

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Suhr reported from Kansas City, Missouri.

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Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Dave Warren in Dallas; and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

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