Reports of five fatalities in central plains wildfires

There are reports that five civilians, not firefighters, have been killed in wildfires in recent days in Texas and Kansas.

In Gray County, Texas, approximately 60 to 80 miles east of panhandle city of Amarillo, three ranch hands were killed as they were moving cattle out ahead of a fire, according to Judge Richard Peet. In Texas county judges are responsible for suppression of wildfires.

Another person was killed in Hemphill County, Texas near Oklahoma border.

The Kansas Highway Patrol says 39-year-old Corey Holt, of Oklahoma City, jackknifed Monday while trying to back up his tractor-trailer on highway 34 in Clark County due to poor visibility from the fires. He was killed after he got out of his vehicle.

Fires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas burn hundreds of thousands of acres

Above: The red and yellow dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hours before 11:30 a.m. CST March 7, 2017.

Published at 11:29 a.m. MST March 7, 2017

On Monday a cold front brought very strong winds to the plains of Kansas and the northern portions of Texas and Oklahoma. Gusting in some areas at over 50 mph and accompanied by low relative humidities, any wildfires that were ignited spread very rapidly, and often exceeded the capabilities of firefighters.

The largest fire started east of Beaver, Oklahoma and ran to the northeast into Oklahoma. Ashland, 40 miles away, had to be evacuated. It is not 100 percent clear if the fire in Ashland was the same fire that started in Oklahoma, but it likely was.

After the cold front passed, the southwest wind shifted 90 degrees to come out of the northwest, which converted the right flank of the fire into the head as it turned and ran to the southeast.

The fire burned in the following counties: in Oklahoma, Beaver and Harper; in Kansas, Meade, Comanche, Clark, and possibly Ford. As of 3:16 a.m. CST satellite data, the fire was still very active in some areas.

The map below shows heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hours before 11:30 a.m. CST March 7, 2017. We drew a red-tinted polygon around the heat icons for the fire east of Beaver. The satellite only collects data twice a day at roughly 12-hour intervals. As the fire spreads rapidly through mostly grass with the strong wind, it can cool and not be detected by the next satellite overflight. We don’t know if everything within our red polygon was all one fire, and even if it is there likely are many areas, some large, that did not burn. So with all those disclaimers, the red polygon includes about 600,000 acres.

wildfire kansas oklahoma
A fire that started in Oklahoma on Monday spread into Kansas burning hundreds of thousands of acres.

The red polygon we drew around the wildfire east of Laverne, OK encompases about 30,000 acres, but the same disclaimers about the fire east of Beaver also apply here.

Red Flag Warnings for strong winds and low humidities have been issued again Tuesday for Kansas and Oklahoma as well as portions of Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The wind is predicted to decrease significantly on Wednesday.

Cold front drives numerous large wildfires in Kansas

Above: Large wildfires (red) in Kansas as detected by a satellite at about 1 p.m. MST March 6, 2017.

(UPDATED at 5:43 p.m. MST March 6, 2017)

Below is an updated map showing growth of some of the fires in Kansas, especially the one 17 miles southeast of Meade, Kansas that burned from Oklahoma into the state. That one, using very rough satellite data, appears to be more than 130,000 acres.

map wildfires kansas
The red areas represent wildfires in Kansas detected by a satellite at 4:07 p.m. MST March 6, 2017. The map above has more information.

There was a report, as yet unconfirmed, that in Kansas a tornado moved over a going fire.

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(Originally published at 4:17 p.m. MST March 6, 2017)

Strong winds along with relative humidities in the teens and twenties are causing problems for firefighters in the western half of Kansas. The passage of a cold front is bringing sustained wind speeds of 30 to 40 mph with maximum gusts in the 40’s and 50’s.

On the map above we identified and very roughly mapped four of the largest fires. The acreages shown are estimates based on satellite detections of heat at about 1 p.m. MST on Monday. One of them has burned from Oklahoma into Kansas.

  • 53,000 acres; 17 miles southeast of Meade, Kansas. It is in Meade and Beaver Counties in Kansas, and Clark County in Oklahoma.
  • 6,500 acres; in Clark County 23 miles east of Meade, Kansas.
  • 7,000 acres; in Lane County Kansas 10 miles southeast of Dighton, Kansas.
  • 4,000 acres; in Rooks County Kansas just southwest of Stockton, Kansas. Residents in part of the city have been ordered to evacuate.

A fire in Logan County in the northeast corner of Colorado has burned 6,000 acres 20 miles northeast of Sterling.

wind and rh in kansas wildfires map
In Kansas at 3:52 p.m. MST. Sustained wind speed on the left and relative humidity on the right.

Before the cold front passed the fires were driven by a southwest wind (see the animated radar map below). As the front passes the wind is shifting 90 degrees to come out of the northwest. This could be a very, VERY dangerous situation for firefighters on the south side of the fires, as the right flank turns into the head of the fire.

map kansas fires infrared
Satellite infrared image showing heat from fires (in black) in Kansas, 3:45 p.m. MST March 6, 2017.

2.7 million acres burned in prescribed fires this spring in the Flint Hills

In February we posted some statistics showing that historically there is a large spike in wildfire activity in March and April in Kansas. The spring is also a time when many, many ranchers conduct prescribed fires in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma. This year between February 27 and May 5, 2.7 million acres were treated with prescribed fire.

Referring to the bar graph below, and throwing out the two busiest and the two slowest data points, in a typical year land managers in the Flint Hills burn between 1.1 million and 2.8 million acres.

Flint Hills Rx fire acreages 2000-2016


Flint Hills, 2016 Rx fire acres

We thank Eric Ward of the Kansas Forest Service for providing these graphics compiled by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment..

Tagged articles on Wildfire Today about fire in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Forestry Service’s Area Command Team

OFS’s Area Command Team is managing statewide wildfires out of Oklahoma City.

OFS Area Command TeamPictured from left to right: George Geissler, Director/Agency Administrator; Andy James, Fire Suppression & Operations; Tim Elder, Aviation Coordinator; Steve Creech, Fire Behavior Analyst; Mark Goeller, Area Commander; Ryan Baldrachi, GIS Specialist; Suzanne McCombs, Public Information Officer; Drew Daily, Fire Suppression & Operations; Melissa Yunas, Lead Public Information Officer.

Four Oklahoma fires merge into one

Above: The 350 Complex of fires. Photo by Roy Anderson of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

What began as four separate fires merged into one large wildfire, named the 350 Complex, Wednesday afternoon in Woodward County in northwest Oklahoma.

An Oklahoma Forestry Services Incident Management Team is working in unified command with the Woodward Fire Department to battle the 57,440-acre blaze, utilizing firefighting task forces, heavy equipment and large air tankers to suppress the fire.  Strong winds are causing rapid growth of the fire. Approximately 115 personnel are assigned, with more resources on order.350 Complex of fires map

The 350 Complex Fires were started by power lines that whipped around and arced, caused by sustained 30 mph winds that gusted to over 50 mph. The fire is 0% contained as of Thursday morning.  An unknown number of structures were lost, but no injuries or deaths have been reported at this time.

Warm temperatures, low relative humidity, and strong winds contributed to the start of additional fires Wednesday afternoon.  Oklahoma Forestry Services is in unified command with the Guthrie Fire Department in responding to the Meridian Fire north of Luther in Logan County, which has burned about 500 acres and is 80% contained as of Thursday morning.

“With the fires we are experiencing and Red Flag Warnings in effect for most of the state, we have to remind the public again that doing anything to cause a spark is extremely dangerous today and over the next few days,” said Geissler.  “Any fires that start in these conditions will have the potential to spread very quickly and present erratic fire behavior.”

350 Complex of fires
350 Complex of fires. Photo provided by Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Generally across the state, numerous new fires started Wednesday during Red Flag Warning conditions that were again present in the majority of Oklahoma. In addition, suppression activities continued on several on-going fires. Competition for suppression resources Wednesday was again high. Many of the wildfires were resistant to control due to the extreme fire behavior resulting from dry fuels, strong winds, and low relative humidity.

Oklahoma Forestry Services has established a statewide area command in Oklahoma City to prioritize the allocation of state and federal resources. State and Federal aircraft remain prepositioned across the state to support on-going and emerging incidents. Additional wildland fire suppression resources have been ordered from the Southern Forest Fire Compact to assist with on-going and new initial attack incidents