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Cold front’s strong winds cause fires, four-car crash in Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at 11:15 p.m.

The wind was whipping the flames into a frenzy in rural Butler County on Sunday night, and as crews approached the rapidly expanding grass fire it was easy to fear the worst.

“Coming up on that scene, you just shudder thinking what might happen,” Augusta’s public safety director, Tyler Brewer, said. “There were a lot of anxious moments.”

The fire stretched more than a half-mile wide and nearly two miles long by the time firefighters from several surrounding cities got it under control, he said. The fire burned in the area of Hopkins Switch Road south of Augusta and northeast of Douglass and took nearly four hours to control.

It was one of several weather-related incidents triggered by powerful winds on the leading edge of a cold front that plunged temperatures 50 degrees or more in a matter of hours across Kansas late Sunday night and early Monday, authorities said.

Winds measured at 60 mph snapped a utility pole next to I-135 at Schilling Road on the south edge of Salina, and the arcing power lines ignited a grass fire that quickly spread along I-135, Saline County Emergency Management director Hannah Stambaugh said.

The flames burned in the median for about a mile and a half before firefighters brought it under control, she said. Authorities closed a portion of I-135 for a while as a precaution.

Those winds also kicked up dust in central and western Kansas, causing near zero visibility on I-70 and highways south of there.

Stambaugh said it was “like a complete dust storm” on I-70 near Solomon where she was traveling when the winds struck Sunday night. “It was ridiculous.”

Poor visibility was blamed in a four-vehicle collision on K-156 a mile east of the junction with U.S. 183 in Pawnee County, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol.

One person was hurt in the chain-reaction collision, authorities said, but declined transport to a local hospital. Several other vehicles pulled over in that area because visibility was so poor, but were not part of the collision.

K-156 was closed for about 90 minutes after the accident so troopers could clear the road, the highway patrol reported.

It was the second time this month that blowing dust led to a multiple-vehicle pile-up in Kansas. Three people were killed and six others injured in an 11-vehicle collision in zero visibility created by blowing dust in northwest Kansas on Jan. 16.

The chain-reaction crash occurred on U.S. 83 two miles west of Rexford, which is about 20 miles northeast of Colby and north of I-70.

Sunday night’s front saw winds of 60 mph reported in many places across Kansas, including McConnell Air Force Base.

“The reality of it was, when you get a cold front coming through, I don’t think you expect that kind of wind,” said Ken Cook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita. “The atmosphere came together just right to produce some pretty good winds.”

Sunday’s events serve as a reminder to motorists that they need to be aware of conditions, Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Roger Baughman said. Wind storms such as the one that came through Sunday night rarely arrive without warning, he said, and people need to be alert enough to the threat to take appropriate shelter or precautions.

Motorists caught in white-outs or dust storms should pull off the roadway and turn their headlights on.

“You’ve got to make yourself as visible as possible” in those circumstances so others can see you, he said.

Even on the Kansas Turnpike, he said, motorists are advised to pull off into the grass so they’re not hit by other vehicles, he said. All too often, motorists are stopping in lanes of traffic when visibility decreases dramatically due to blowing snow or dust.

That’s a dangerous thing to do, he said, because other motorists may not see you until they’re too close to avoid hitting you.

While Sunday’s grass fire in rural Butler County caused an estimated $10,000 in damage, the casualty list was limited to hay bales, a chicken coop and the porch of a house, Brewer said. No injuries were reported.

An investigation revealed that the fire began when the strong winds blew sparks into the grass from fireplace ashes set outside to cool at a rural homestead. Winds were calm when the ashes were placed outside, but that changed when the cold front arrived.

“We’re very fortunate” the fire wasn’t much worse, Brewer said.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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