Wind, dirt close highways, blow over semi as parts of Kansas drier than Dust Bowl

Dust causes near blackout conditions

Dust and fire debris kicked up by 40-50 mph winds cause near blackout conditions Tuesday morning outside of Ashland. Winds across the state kicked up dust prompting a dust storm warning from the National Weather Service.
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Dust and fire debris kicked up by 40-50 mph winds cause near blackout conditions Tuesday morning outside of Ashland. Winds across the state kicked up dust prompting a dust storm warning from the National Weather Service.

Kansas wind caused problems for emergency responders across the state on Tuesday as dust storms shut down an interstate, wildfires blazed and semis were blown over.

Northwestern Kansas was hit hard by windstorms with multiple highways closed because blowing dust reduced visibility for drivers. In other parts of the state, including Sedgwick County, firefighters fought blazes as wind gusts spread flames.

At Hays, a fire caused I-70 traffic to be rerouted to old U.S. 40 because of zero visibility, Kansas State Trooper Tod Hileman said on Twitter at around noon. It was opened back up in both directions at around 1 p.m.

Hileman tweeted at around 2:30 p.m. that firefighters were trying to keep the blaze from reaching Catharine. The Kansas National Guard tweeted that two Black Hawk helicopters were sent to help fight the fire. A news release said the helicopters have collapsible Bambi buckets that, wind permitting, will draw water from local sources to drop on hot spots.

Farther west, the interstate was closed for about 38 miles between Goodland and Colby because of blowing dirt, the Kansas Department of Transportation tweeted.

Several other highways were closed. About 29 miles of U.S. 36 was closed for blowing dust between Atwood and Oberlin, as were U.S. 40 west and K-25 south of Colby.

The National Weather Service in Goodland said the dust was blowing east and could make travel hazardous. A dust storm warning was issued for portions of northwest Kansas from noon to 6 p.m.

The warning means that blowing dust reduces visibility to less than a quarter of a mile. Travelers were recommended to use extreme caution, especially near open fields.

High winds overturned a semi, blocking the roadway and shutting down U.S. 40 between Sharon Springs and Oakley, the Department of Transportation tweeted.

Strong winds also forced a semi into the ditch of U.S. 83 about 21 miles northeast of Colby at around 10 a.m., a crash report from the Kansas Highway Patrol states. The semi and trailer both rolled over onto their passenger sides and won't be removed until winds calm down.

The 49-year-old driver from Geneva, Neb., was taken to a hospital with a possible injury, the report said.

Trooper Ben Gardner tweeted that two other rollover crashes might have been caused by wind.

The highest wind gust in Wichita as of 1 p.m. was 58 miles per hour, the National Weather Service in Wichita tweeted.

In Wichita, First Student buses were delayed in getting Wichita Public Schools students home because high winds forced them off elevated routes, such as Kellogg and I-135.

The dust storms come after a winter that left parts of the state drier than the Dust Bowl days.

The most recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows almost 99 percent of Kansas is abnormally dry and over 73 percent of the state is in moderate drought. About three-quarters of the state faces above normal wildfire potential.

"The southern and western parts of the state – especially the far southwest – is just dangerously dry right now," Eric Ward of K-State Research and Extension said in a release on Friday. "This persistent dryness will make it much more difficult to stop any fire that does start," Ward said.

Ward is a fire-planning specialist with the Kansas Forest Service in Manhattan. The release said it is normal for Kansas to be dry at the end of winter, but this year is worse.

"I've been told that some areas of Kansas have now broken the state record for the most days without measurable precipitation," Ward said. "So, thinking back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, we have now beaten that."

This was the driest winter for Wichita in nearly 100 years. The city officially received 1 inch of snow, but the National Weather Service said 0.7 of that was sleet.

A fast-moving wildfire north of Harper kept firefighters busy on Tuesday afternoon. The fire was just one of several that erupted across the state, fed by high winds and drought conditions.