Prairie fires kill at least six, scorch 2,300 square miles

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - ©2017 The New York Times The As­so­ci­ated Press con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

Wild­fires rag­ing across four states, fanned by winds and fu­eled by a drought-starved prairie, have killed at least six peo­ple and burned more than 2,300 square miles.

Winds in western Kansas and the Ok­la­homa Pan­han­dle were eas­ing some­what Wed­nes­day, but weather of­fi­cials said that con­di­tions were chal­leng­ing for fire crews and were ex­pected to worsen to­day and Fri­day, re­new­ing con­cerns about get­ting the fires un­der con­trol.

“These con­di­tions will make it some­what eas­ier for fire­fight­ing ef­forts, but far from per- fect,” said Bill Bunt­ing, fore- cast op­er­a­tions chief for the Ok­la­homa-based Storm Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter. “The fires still will be mov­ing.”

“The ideal sit­u­a­tion is that it would turn cold and rain,” he said, “and un­for­tu­nately, that’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

The Na­tional Weather Ser- vice has is­sued a crit­i­cal fire risk warn­ing from the Texas Pan­han­dle into Ok­la­homa, Kansas and western Mis­souri.

Phillip Truitt, a spe­cial- ist with the Texas A&M For­est Ser­vice, told Reuters that be­cause of the high-risk days ahead, “we’re try­ing to get these fires but­toned up as fast as we can.”

It was not clear what started the fires, but Bunt­ing said hu­man ac­tiv­ity — such as a cig­a­rette thrown from a car or a spark from a cat­alytic con­verter — is most of­ten the cul- prit. Light­ning ac­counts for 25 per­cent of wild­fires.

Among the dead were three ranch hands in the Texas Pan­han­dle who were try­ing to herd cat­tle away from the flames. Judge Richard Peet, the top ad­min­is­tra­tor of Gray County, Texas, told lo­cal news out­lets that three peo­ple — two men and a woman — had been killed by a wild­fire that flared Mon­day af­ter­noon.

One man, Cody Crock­ett, 20, was on horse­back; his girl­friend, Syd­ney Wal­lace, 23, was nearby on foot, Peet told re­porters. Wal­lace, he said, was un­able to es­cape the fumes and died of smoke in­hala­tion.

Crock­ett and the third vic­tim, Sloan Everett, 35, who was also on horse­back, suf­fered burns, Peet said.

Nearly 6 mil­lion peo­ple live in ar­eas at risk for crit­i­cal wild­fire con­di­tions, in­clud­ing Tulsa, Okla., Ok­la­homa City and Kansas City, the Storm Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter said. Fore- cast­ers said con­di­tions were also ripe for fires in Iowa, Mis­souri and Ne­braska.

Kansas of­fi­cials said that in ad­di­tion to the homes and build­ings de­stroyed, the fires had killed an un­known amount of live­stock in sev­eral coun­ties.

Many an­i­mals maimed by the fire had to be killed. Larry Kon­rade of Ash­land, Kan., said he had killed at least 40 head of cat­tle, “and in a lot of places, there weren’t even very many left alive to put down.”

“All in all, I’d guess I seen be­tween 300 and 400 dead cat­tle,” said Kon­rade, who spent the day h elp­ing a rancher. “It was just a mat­ter of putting an­i­mals out of their mis­ery, do­ing them a fa­vor. They were go­ing to die any­way.”

The ex­tent of the dam­age in some ar­eas was not known be­cause of­fi­cials had been un­able to sur­vey the area.

In Kansas, at least nine heli- copters were put into ser­vice to fight the fires.

A dash­cam video of a Kansas state trooper cap­tured him res­cu­ing a stranded truck driver and then driv­ing through thick smoke and fire.

The trooper, Tod Hile­man, posted a video on Face­book of the fire near Wil­son, in cen­tral Kansas. Af­ter the fire jumped across part of In­ter­state 70, he said, he be­gan turn­ing peo­ple around be­fore they drove into it. He said he waved off about 20 cars and two trac­tor-trail­ers be­fore the fire crossed the op­po­site lanes.

He can be heard on the video telling a truck driver who be­came stuck to “get in.”

Ok­la­homa’s gov­er­nor, Mary Fallin, de­clared a state of emer­gency Tues­day in 22 coun­ties be­cause of the wild­fires, and Gov. Sam Brown­back of Kansas signed a state of dis­as­ter emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion.

In north­east­ern Colorado, near the Ne­braska bor­der, fire­fight­ers bat­tled a blaze that had burned more than 45 square miles and de­stroyed at least five homes and 15 out­build­ings, with no se­ri­ous in­juries.

Of­fi­cials in the states af­fected by the wild­fires have not re­leased es­ti­mates of the eco­nomic losses caused by dam­aged or de­stroyed homes, busi­nesses and live­stock — or the ex­pense of fire­fight­ers’ ef­forts to put out the flames. But it is ex­pected that those costs will run well into the mil­lions of dol­lars.

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