6 dead, thousands forced from homes in Midwest wildfires

Updated March 7, 2017 - 1:35 pm

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Emergency crews struggled Tuesday to contain wildfires that have scorched hundreds of square miles of land in four states, killing six people and forcing thousands of others to flee their homes ahead of the wind-whipped flames.

Fires burned in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, and warnings that conditions were ripe were issued for Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, even after powerful thunderstorms moved through the middle of the country overnight, spawning dozens of tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.

Kansas wildfires have burned about 625 square miles of land and killed one person. The Kansas Highway Patrol said Corey Holt, of Oklahoma City, died Monday when his tractor-trailer jackknifed as he tried to back up because of poor visibility on southern Kansas highway, and he succumbed to smoke after getting out of his vehicle. Two SUVs crashed into the truck, injuring six people who were taken to hospitals, state trooper Michael Racy said.

The vast majority of the state’s burned land is in Clark County, Kansas, where 30 structures were damaged, said Allison Kuhns, a spokeswoman for the county’s emergency management office. About half of those structures are near the small city of Englewood, which was one of two communities evacuated. Kuhns said there also have been significant cattle losses and that entire ranches were engulfed.

The fire originated across the state border in Oklahoma, where it burned an estimated 390 square miles in Beaver County. Officials say a separate fire has scorched more than 155 square miles of land in neighboring Harper County and taken the life of a woman who had a heart attack while trying to keep her farm near Buffalo from burning.

The largest evacuations elsewhere were in Reno County, Kansas, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily left their homes Monday night, said Katie Horner, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Emergency Management. She said 66 people from the area were in shelters Tuesday in Hutchinson, 40 miles northwest of Wichita.

Among them was Shelley Wilson, who fled Monday with her disabled son and pets from a blaze that was encircling her farm outside of Hutchinson. She returned later that night with her adult daughter to retrieve her tractor.

“I don’t know if I have a home to go home to,” Wilson said at the shelter Tuesday as her daughter did her best to lighten her mood. “In case I needed to rebuild, I wanted to at least have my tractor.”

Several hundred more people evacuated their homes in Russell, Ellsworth and Comanche counties, in central Kansas.

The Kansas fires forced the closure of some roads, including two short stretches of Interstate 70, the main highway that cuts across the state from Colorado to Kansas City.

TEXAS PANHANDLE BLAZES

In the Texas Panhandle, three fires have burned more than 195 square miles of land and killed at least four people. One of the blazes near Amarillo threatened about 150 homes, while a larger fire in the northeast corner of the Panhandle near the Oklahoma border was only 5 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. That larger fire was responsible for a death on Monday, authorities said Tuesday without providing further details.

A wildfire in Gray County, also in the Texas Panhandle, killed three ranch hands who were trying to usher cattle away from the flames, said Judge Richard Peet, the county’s head administrator. One of the three apparently died of smoke inhalation Monday night and the other two were badly burned and died on the way to hospitals, he said.

Forest Service spokesman Phillip Truitt said as many as four firefighters were hurt battling the fires Monday. He provided no details on their conditions Tuesday morning.

In northeastern Colorado near the Nebraska border, firefighters lost ground to a blaze in rural Logan and Phillips counties. They had the blaze 90 percent contained Monday evening, but only 50 percent contained Tuesday, despite working overnight to douse hot spots and flare-ups. The fire has burned more than 45 square miles of land and destroyed three homes. Nearby residents were warned to be ready to evacuate if the fire advances.

FLORIDA FIRES

Authorities say they’ve shut down a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 75 in southwest Florida as firefighters continue to battle a 6,000-acre brush fire in the Picayune Strand State Forest.

The Naples Daily News reports that the Florida Highway Patrol closed the western end of Alligator Alley Tuesday afternoon.

Workers from the Florida Forest Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and firefighters from Collier, Sarasota, Lee and Charlotte counties worked through the night Monday and into Tuesday battling a brush fire that started Sunday and spread throughout eastern Collier County.

Collier County Emergency Services Director Dan Summers says weather and wind conditions have helped spread the fire, which is 30 percent contained.

Residents of several nearby communities have been evacuated.

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