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Fires, tornadoes and hail: It was a scary day across Kansas

Monday was a crazy, scary day in Kansas.

Wildfires fueled by 25- to 50-mph winds from the southwest and low humidity caused the evacuation of several communities in western Kansas. A cold front swept through Monday evening, flipping the winds to the northwest but keeping the wind momentum at 30 to 50 mph, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Robb Lawson.

Fire crews in rural communities struggled to keep up.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management reported active fires in Clark, Cheyenne, Comanche, Ellsworth, Finney, Ford, Hodgeman, Lane, Meade, Ness, Pratt, Pottawatomie, Rawlins, Reno, Rice, Rooks, Russell, Seward, Shawnee, Smith and Stevens counties. Although some fires have been mostly contained, fire crews will still monitor the burned areas for flare-ups.

And then there were tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in eastern Kansas. One-inch hail was reported in Rosalia in Butler County. People in Eudora near Kansas City were told to prepare for baseball-size hail.

At one point, 15 wildfires were reported in Kansas, causing evacuations in Ashland, Englewood, Protection, Stockton and Wilson, according to the Wildfire Today website.

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Shortly after 7:30 p.m. Monday, the Reno County Emergency Management was warning people to be ready to evacuate homes if they were in an area from K-61 to Kent Road, from 82nd to 30th Avenue in Hutchinson. People were also evacuated in the area of Monroe to K-61 from 95th to 30th. The evacuation center is at 4501 W. Fourth St. in Hutchinson. And those living near 108th Avenue to the Hutchinson city limits, from Plum Street to Lorraine Street, were told to leave. That evacuation center is at Fun Valley, 4501 W. Fourth Ave.

Residents on the east side of the Highlands – where fires broke out on Sunday – were told to move to the west side and not to leave the Highlands.

One wildfire near Mead started in Oklahoma and burned into Kansas. That one is estimated to have burned more than 130,000 acres, the website reported. Other fires included a 7,000-acre one in Lane County, about 10 miles southeast of Dighton, and 4,000 acres burned in Rooks County.

The Kansas National Guard deployed four Black Hawk helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation out of Salina equipped with 660-gallon Bambi buckets. Two of the helicopters were in Reno County assisting with fire suppression, and the other two were on stand-by.

The Kansas Adjutant General’s Office reported late Monday that Federal Fire Management Assistance grants have been approved for Clark, Comanche, Ellsworth, Ford, Ness and Rooks counties. Additional requests may be made as the current emergencies continue.

The Kansas Department of Emergency Management is also seeking additional firefighting resources from other states through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and from the National Forestry Service.

Tuesday may bring more of the same.

“There will be lighter winds, but any fires still going tonight will be difficult to put out,” Lawson said.

Clark County

The 76 residents of the small rural town of Englewood were ordered to leave at 3:25 p.m. Monday.

Twenty minutes later, Ashland’s 850 residents were ordered to leave their homes.

“This fire started in Oklahoma and came across the border in southwest Clark County,” said Millie Fudge, Clark County Emergency Preparedness coordinator. “It’s nonstoppable. All we are doing is protecting houses. That is all we can do.”

The Clark County sheriff posted on Facebook: “Official emergency, evacuate Englewood and Ashland. Englewood residents go south to OK. Ashland residents goes east to Coldwater. Both towns are endanger of the incoming fires.”

Late Monday night, Dave Webb of Protection reported that U.S. 160 was closed in eastern Clark County, and firefighters were reporting there were power poles in the area burning and about to fall.

Ford, Comanche counties

In nearby Ford County, firefighters worked to contain fires in Spearville and Bucklin, southeast of Dodge City. And a fire was moving north toward Bloom from Clark County, according to J.D. Gilbert, the Ford County administrator and public information officer.

Protection is also being evacuated.

“They are evacuating Protection,” said Webb in Comanche County. It has roughly 500 residents. “There is fire north of town about 10 to 12 miles from me. And there is a fire between Protection and Sitka, south of U.S. 160. I know of three houses that have burned near Ashland; they are in the country and not in town.

“I’m looking at heavy smoke right now. Some of my neighbors have left home.”

The Dodge City Community College Student Activities Center has been opened for people affected by the fires.

The following areas in Ford County are being evacuated: Green Acres, Wilroads Gardens, 110 Spring and Marshall, U.S. 56 near Dodge City Raceway Park, South 113th and U.S. 56, plus Fort Dodge may also need to be evacuated.

Webb said at 9:30 p.m. Monday that the fires were west and southwest of Protection. He said he knew of at least nine houses that had burned in Clark and Comanche counties.

“The Haskell County Fire Department arrived in Comanche County and was sent to the state line south of Protection,” he said.

Ellsworth County

Shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, I-70 in north-central Kansas was closed in both directions near Wilson because of a fast-moving wildfire.

Smoke affected visibility on I-70 between Dorrance and Wilson. At one point, I-70 was shut down from Russell to the Sylvan Grove exit. Law enforcement authorities were telling people to avoid the area on Monday afternoon.

By 8:15 p.m., the interstate was open again, but officials were warning people to be on the lookout for flare-ups.

Wilson Police Chief Bob Doepp said his office had been suggesting evacuation late Monday afternoonfor the town’s 780 residents.

“It has gotten past the interstate, is on the north of town,” he said. “It was going pretty fast as it moved through that CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land and has slowed down on some of the tilled land.

“We’ve told people to evacuate. People are still leaving.”

Trooper Tod Hileman, public relations officer in Hays, said the Wilson fire began at around 4 p.m. north of I-70 near the Wilson State Park and was 20 to 30 miles long. As of 9 p.m. Monday, the fire was still burning in a hilly pasture near Wilson, with fire crews working to contain it. At least one house and several outbuildings were lost in the wildfire. Wilson residents were going back to their homes. Fifteen fire departments battled the flames.

“A lot of the people did leave and just drove around – west so they weren’t downwind of the smoke,” Hileman said.

In the meantime, others drove to the command post near I-70 and brought food for the firefighters.

“People are donating food like crazy,” he said. “It’s coming in from everywhere.”

The seasoned trooper said he couldn’t remember a day in Kansas with this many fires.

The National Weather Service is calling Monday’s events a wildfire outbreak.

“Winds have become NW at almost all locations, with the last remaining SW winds in Barber county, becoming NW over the next hour,” the National Weather Service posted on Facebook at 6 p.m. Monday. “The NW wind direction will persist through much of the night. The good news: the NW wind speeds will relax rapidly after sunset, down to 10-20 mph by midnight. Winds will be westerly near 10 mph at sunrise Tuesday.”

But the winds will be back on Tuesday.

“While not as strong as Monday, they will still average 20-30 mph with gusts near 35 mph. Strongest gusts of 40-45 mph are expected NE of Dodge City,” the NWS post continued.

The fire department in Alva, Okla., just south of Kansas, was fighting three fires in its own state, including in Woodward County. But they were keeping an eye on the fire in Kansas, which started in Beaver County, Okla.

“If it does come back into Oklahoma from Kansas, it’s going to get into some pretty heavy fuel loads,” said Bryan Miller, the assistant fire chief in Alva, to the southeast of Ashland. “Up to that range is heavy wooded populated red cedars. If you remember the Anderson Creek fire, it could be similar to that because of the amount of fuel load in the eastern red cedars.”

Ness County

Fires destroyed several homes in Ransom in Ness County.

Contributing: Oliver Morrison and Michael Pearce of The Eagle

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

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