Firefighters struggle to stay ahead of wind-whipped wildfires
Howling winds fed numerous grass fires across Kansas on Tuesday, prompting highway closings and evacuations.
A wildfire in Ellis County led to the evacuation of farmsteads near Catharine in northern Kansas, state officials said. Authorities urged residents of Catharine near Hays to prepare to leave as a wildfire continued to burn.
“Fire departments are set up north of Catharine to try to keep it from getting into town but if you live in or around Catharine, be prepared!” Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Hileman said on Twitter.
Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and about 16 soldiers from the Kansas National Guard have been deployed to support firefighting efforts in Ellis County, according to state officials.
Two helicopters dumped water on the fires while two others were on standby if needed, said Katie Horner, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s office.
Nearly 50 wildfires have erupted across Kansas over the past two days, burning an estimated 25,000 acres, state officials said.
▪ 21 have been put out.
▪ 10 are in final clean-up
▪ 16 are contained
In general, the wildfire threat “is dying down” on Tuesday night, Horner said.
An estimated 100 firefighters from Ellis, Rooks, Russell and Trego counties – with helicopter support from the Kansas National Guard – battled a blaze that stretched for about five miles across the northeastern section of Ellis County.
As of early Tuesday evening, Myers estimated the fire was only 25 percent contained.
“Every time I think we’ve got the upper hand, the wind shifts again,” Ellis County Director of Fire and Emergency Management Darin Myers said in a status report posted on Facebook.
But at least one of the wind shifts was a blessing. Emergency officials were able to set aside plans to evacuate Catharine after the changing winds shifted the smoke and flames away from the town.
Fire crews will be on scene of the Ellis County fire most of the night, Myers said. Donations of water, sports drinks and non-perishable snack foods are being accepted at the Emergency Services Building, 1105 E. 22nd Street in Hays.
Winds gusts topped 70 miles an hour north of Scott City and reached 60 miles an hour in parts of northern and central Kansas on Tuesday. But those winds are expected to ease into the teens on Wednesday.
Traffic on Interstate 70 was rerouted to Highway 40 on the south end of Hays due to limited visibility, Hileman said. That was just one of several road closings caused by wildfires and blowing dust, though all roads had reopened by late Tuesday afternoon.
A grass fire in Harper County continued to burn as Tuesday evening approached.
One of the grass fires was caused by a crash in Shawnee County, WIBW-TV reported. Two teens driving home from school crashed on a gravel road and the truck they were in caught fire.
The fire spread to a nearby field. The teens were taken to a hospital for treatment.
Fire crews were able to bring a grass fire near Lake Afton under control rather quickly around the noon hour Tuesday. An estimated 24 units from Sedgwick County, Wichita, Cheney and Clearwater were mobilized to fight the fire that was initially reported at about 11:45 a.m.
The crews needed less than an hour to bring it under control.
Jacob Newman said he has lived on West 47th Street for a decade. Nearby grass fires have happened before, but he said this is the first time his house has been in danger.
"I was actually in class (at Friend's University) when I saw the smoke, but I didn't think anything of it," he said, just before deputies with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office let him go to his home.
His pets — four German Shepherds and some aquatic life — were safely inside, he said. Other homeowners in the area said they moved their horses to other pastures for safety. Some charred cedar trees could be seen on West 47th — which is closed between 231st and 215th as of 1:30 p.m.
The high winds affected activities across the state. Wind gusts topped 65 miles an hour north of Scott City in southwest Kansas Tuesday morning and reached 70 miles an hour at the Garden City airport Tuesday afternoon.
The storm spotter talk planned for Tuesday night in Graham County was canceled due to the high winds. In Wichita, school buses avoided elevated routes Tuesday afternoon.
“As a result some bus routes may be running late,” a statement issued by USD 259 said.