The Latest: 2-county Kansas wildfire sets new state record

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2017 5:19 PM
The Latest: 2-county Kansas wildfire sets new state record

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — The Latest on wildfires burning in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado (all times local):

4:15 p.m.

A massive grass fire raging in two Kansas counties has set a state record for the biggest involving a single blaze.

Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Katie Horner says an estimated 861 square miles of land have been blackened in Comanche and Clark counties as of Wednesday. The 625 square miles charred in Comanche County is about 85 percent of that county's land.

Horner says the previous record came last year, with the Anderson Creek fire consuming 488 square miles of land in Barber and Comanche counties.

Horner says that since Saturday, large grassfires have been reported in 23 Kansas counties, consuming more than 1,000 square miles.

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12:10 p.m.

Three young friends, including a couple, were overcome as they tried to steer cattle away from the flames of a wildfire in the Texas Panhandle.

Gray County Judge Richard Peet said Wednesday it appears 20-year-old Cody Crockett was on horseback and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Sydney Wallace, was nearby on foot as fire and smoke swirled around them in Gray County.

Peet says Wallace may have tried to run at the last moment Monday evening but she couldn't escape the smoke. He says she died of smoke inhalation.

Crockett suffered burns, as did 35-year-old Sloan Everett who also was on horseback. The bodies of all three were found close to one another.

A fourth person who died in the Texas Panhandle — 25-year-old Cade Koch (cook) — was attempting to drive home Monday night when smoke from a separate fire enveloped him.

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11:45 a.m.

Dramatic dashcam video shows a Kansas trooper rescuing a stranded tractor-trailer driver from a wildfire and driving through thick smoke as flames lick the roadside.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Hileman has posted video on Facebook of the fire near the small central Kansas town of Wilson. After the fire jumped Interstate 70 east of him on Monday, he began turning people around before they drove into it. He turned around about 20 cars and two tractor-trailers before the fire also crossed the interstate to the west.

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

Hileman called the situation is "one of the most steering-wheel-gripping moments" he's had in his 20 years with the patrol.

By Wednesday, the fire had burned more than 1,000 square miles.

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10:40 a.m.

The wife of a man killed in a Texas wildfire says the couple had only learned a month earlier that they were expecting their first child.

Sierra Koch (COOK) says her husband, 25-year-old Cade Koch, was driving home from his job at a hardware store Monday night when he was overcome by smoke from the largest of three wildfires burning in the Texas Panhandle. She described him Wednesday as a hard-working man who "treated everybody with the utmost respect."

A GoFund Me campaign has nearly reached a goal of raising $20,000 to cover funeral expenses for Koch.

Three other people died in a separate fire to the south while trying to usher cattle away from flames Monday evening.

Other wildfires have claimed one life in Kansas and another in Oklahoma.

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10:05 a.m.

Weather conditions that are fueling massive wildfires in Plains states are expected to improve slightly, but gusty winds and low humidity are still in the forecast.

Bill Bunting is chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. He says the area of greatest concern Wednesday is from central and western Oklahoma to western Missouri, with additional danger from Nebraska and Iowa to the Texas Panhandle.

Bunting says the winds will come mostly from the south and southwest, but at 40 mph or higher, and with humidity levels below 20 percent, people shouldn't mistakenly believe the threat is reduced.

He says human activity causes most wildfires in the prairie — a cigarette thrown from a car or sometimes a spark from a catalytic converter. Lightning accounts for 25 percent of fires.

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9:25 a.m.

About 2,000 firefighters are battling wildfires in Kansas that have consumed more than 1,000 square miles.

State Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Katie Horner says the number of helicopters dumping water on the fires will increase Wednesday from six to nine. This is possible because flying conditions are safer due to calmer winds.

More than half of the blaze has burned in Clark and Comanche counties, both ranching and farming communities along the state's southern border with Oklahoma. Horner says she can't yet provide a cost estimate of the fire damage.

The most populated area affected is Reno County, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily evacuated their homes Monday. By Wednesday, 1,000 to 2,000 residents of the county remained displaced.

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8:30 a.m.

Three wildfires in the Texas Panhandle have burned nearly 750 square miles of rural land as firefighters continue to make progress in containing the flames fanned by winds and dry conditions.

The fires have killed four people, with the latest victim identified as 25-year-old Cade Koch. His wife, Sierra Koch, told the Amarillo Globe-News her husband was overcome by smoke as he drove home Monday night.

The fire that claimed Koch is the largest of the three, covering 492 square miles in the northeast Panhandle near the Oklahoma border. It was 60 percent contained by Wednesday morning.

A second fire just to the south has consumed 210 square miles and is 75 percent contained. A smaller fire to the west near Amarillo is fully contained.

The Texas A&M Forest Service says there remains a high wildfire danger Wednesday in the Panhandle.

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8 a.m.

Emergency officials say eight people have been treated at hospitals for breathing-related complications from smoky air caused by massive wildfires in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management says hospitals reported the injuries from the wildfires still burning in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

State forestry officials say three fires have burned more than 500 square miles in the Panhandle, including one large fire that has crossed over the state line into Kansas. Officials say they haven't been able to contain the fires at all as of Wednesday morning.

Forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, say critical fire conditions will persist in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri on Wednesday, but winds fanning the flames are expected to ease up later in the day.

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6:25 a.m.

New estimates indicate Kansas wildfires have burned more than 1,000 square miles, up from 625 square miles.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management said late Tuesday that the heaviest damage is in Clark County, where 548 square miles have burned. That fire started in Oklahoma before moving into the Kansas ranching community.

Another 235 square miles have burned in neighboring Comanche County, Kansas.

The state says six other counties are battling blazes. Among them, estimates of the burned land range from a single square mile to about 90.

Kansas National Guard Black Hawk helicopters have been assisting with the firefight. They dropped about 138,000 gallons on fires near Hutchinson in Reno County, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily evacuated their homes.

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12:25 a.m.

Winds are expected to diminish as emergency crews in four states continue to battle wildfires that have killed six people and destroyed hundreds of square miles of land.

The Oklahoma-based Storm Prediction Center says powerful wind gusts that fanned the flames in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas should ease to about 10 to 20 mph on Wednesday.

Wildfires in Kansas have burned about 625 square miles of land and killed one person. At least four people died in Texas, where three fires burned about 500 square miles.

Authorities in Oklahoma say a woman had a fatal heart attack while trying to save her farm from one blaze. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in 22 counties.

All of eastern Colorado is classified as either moderately or abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.