This could be one of the deadliest fire years for the state of Kansas in recent history, fire officials said Thursday.
Two firefighters and 15 civilians have died in fires in Kansas through the end of March. The state averages two firefighter and 33 civilian deaths a year.
"We've already reached the halfway mark, and that's disturbing," Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
"Is this going to be the deadliest year? I certainly hope not. We're on our way to having a really bad year for civilian deaths."
Last year, 40 civilians and four firefighters died in blazes statewide.
Four of this year's fire-related deaths have occurred in the Wichita area.
Wichita Fire Capt. Urban Eck, 51, died Jan. 2 of heart-related complications for which he had been hospitalized in mid-December, five days after fighting a blaze at the Cedar Lake Apartment complex.
Mary Weaver, 55, died Jan. 6 from burns she suffered as a result of smoking in her apartment at the Timbers complex, 2021 N. Old Manor.
Ashlynn and Alessandra Slaybaugh died in a fire at their Mulvane home on Feb. 8. Ashlynn was 4, Alessandra 3.
There are so many factors that contribute to fire deaths it can be difficult to pinpoint causes that can be counter-acted, Crisp and Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh said.
"There really isn't anything different this year" that could account for the early surge in fire deaths, Millspaugh said. "It's just coincidental types of things."
Most fire deaths occur in buildings, Kansas Fire Marshal Dan McLaughlin said, with the main causes being children playing with fire and space heaters igniting nearby material.
The Slaybaugh sisters may have started the fire that killed them by using a cigarette lighter accidentally left in their bedroom by their mother, investigators said.
Other circumstances are in place to encourage dangerous fires, Millspaugh and Crisp said.
The struggling economy is prompting people to look for ways to cut costs, including moving in with others and using fireplaces, stoves or space heaters for heat.
Most fires are caused by human behavior, Crisp said, such as careless smoking and candles or cooking left unattended. The more people under one roof, he said, the more chances there are for a fire to break out.
"The No. 1 cause of fires in Wichita is unattended cooking," Crisp said. "People aren't eating out as much as they used to. They're staying home and cooking.
"The more people you have cooking, the more potential you have for cooking fires."
The risk of grass fires has been elevated in the region for the past few weeks, because of dead vegetation, low humidity and robust winds. Thursday offered a respite from the wind, prompting Millspaugh to urge farmers and ranchers to complete needed controlled burns if possible.
Forecasts indicate the winds will be too strong to allow open outdoor burns for at least the next week.
On Thursday north of Hutchinson a grass fire consumed about 600 acres after a controlled burn spread out of control. Crews from Reno County, Rice County, Hutchinson, Sterling and Burrton responded to the grass fire.
Grass fires may seem fairly benign, officials said, but they can become dangerous quickly. An 87-year-old rural Altoona man died March 30 at the burn unit of Via Christi Hospital, a day after his truck got stuck in a muddy field and set the grass underneath on fire.
Willard Carter tried to walk away from the spreading fire, authorities said, but only made it about 100 feet before he fell.
The last three Sedgwick County firefighters to die in the line of duty were all killed while fighting grass fires, Millspaugh said.
"As far as our history goes, grass fires are the most dangerous thing we can do," he said.
The most recent was Bryon Johnson, who touched a dangling power line while fighting a grass fire on Sept. 24, 2007.
"It was about shoulder height, and he backed into it," Millspaugh said.
The grass fire risk is expected to climb into dangerous levels by this weekend and persist through at least the middle of next week, forecasters said.