High winds shut down Kansas highways, fuel grass fires

Strong winds blasted much of Kansas on Thursday, closing highways and fueling numerous grass fires.

Gusts topped 60 mph in northwest Kansas, prompting authorities to close I-70 from Colby to Limon, Colo., authorities said. In central Kansas, fire departments from several communities converged to fight a grass fire in Lyon County.

Multiple grass fires were reported in and around Wichita, a Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor said, but all were extinguished before they grew large.

The potent northwest winds stirred up so much dust in northwest Kansas “it’s visible on satellite,” said Jim Caruso, a meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

Sustained winds of 55 mph were reported in Russell, while 52 mph winds were reported in Salina. Wichita and McPherson logged winds of 49 mph.

Portions of K-27 and U.S. 36 and U.S. 83 in Sherman, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Thomas and Sheridan counties were closed midafternoon Thursday due to the wind, authorities said. Authorities in Cheyenne County reported that the windscaused a tractor-trailer to roll over on U.S. 36 west of St. Francis.

The robust winds were the product of a combination of factors, said Andy Kleinsasser, a meteorologist with the weather service. A strong storm system near the Great Lakes was drawing cold air down into the Great Plains, creating an environment where air at the surface cooled rapidly as it reached higher levels of the atmosphere.

In addition, winds from ground level through the midlevels of the atmosphere were all blowing the same direction – out of the northwest, Kleinsasser said. That creates a “slipper-slide” effect allowing naturally stronger upper-level winds to race down to the surface.

The result is the kind of wind speeds that can shut down highways and make travel challenging for high-profile vehicles.

The good news, Kleinsasser said, is that the winds will ease dramatically by Friday.

Contributing: Associated Press