Combine the warmest October in nearly half a century and only three light rains in Wichita in nearly four weeks, and you have a tinderbox in the making.
That was demonstrated Wednesday by three grass fires in Reno County and another in the Big Ditch south of the Sedgwick County Zoo.
The Big Ditch fire broke out just before 3:25 p.m. between 13th and 21st streets, a Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor said. Fire crews needed more than an hour and a half to bring it under control.
Two fires north and east of Hutchinson prompted officials to warn nearby residents to be prepared to evacuate. A third fire was reported north of town just before 5 p.m.
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The Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hutchinson for those who may need to flee the fires.
Authorities warned that fires will continue to have the potential to spread quickly until a good rain arrives — which could be a while, forecasters say.
"There's a little over 20 percent chance for next Wednesday," National Weather Service meteorologist Vanessa Pearce said.
Conditions are even drier in central Kansas, where officials were poised to issue a red-flag warning on Tuesday.
The dry autumn has allowed vegetation to dry out much faster than normal, said Stephanie Dunten, a meteorologist with the weather service.
Add low humidity and warm temperatures, she said, and the threat of major grass fires mushrooms.
Conditions are prime for fires to start easily and spread rapidly, Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh said.
About 80 percent of the vegetation in the Wichita area is dry, Dunten said, and that will increase significantly once the first hard freeze arrives.
The average monthly temperature in Wichita for October was 62.3 degrees, 3.7 degrees above normal.
Wichita hasn't had an October with a higher average temperature since 1963, when the average was 67.7 degrees.
Only half an inch of rain fell in Wichita last month, nearly 2 inches below average.
Elevated humidity and colder temperatures will keep the fire danger in the Wichita area lower than in other parts of the state, Dunten said, but residents still should exercise caution.
"Until we get any precipitation, that risk is going to be there," she said.