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