By Patrick Lowry
Hays Daily News - March 13, 2017
With temperatures in the 70s last week, winds reaching speeds of more than 60 mph, and the U.S. Drought Monitor classifying our region either as “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought” — it’s difficult to remember winter isn’t even over officially.
At least that was the case until flurries popped up Saturday morning amid 30-degree temperatures.
But aside from a few ice storms and light snowfalls, winter as a season barely was recognized in northwest Kansas this year. Which has done nothing but dry out the ground cover that flourished during all of 2016’s precipitation that had brought an end to a multi-year drought.
Last week, throughout much of the state, huge grass fires erupted. From Monday through Thursday, firefighters, law enforcement, farmers, oil-patch workers, county road crews, volunteers and other emergency responders did not get many breaks as they battled one blaze after another in western and central Kansas. More than 700,000 acres have burned, prompting Gov. Sam Brownback to declare a state of disaster emergency.
While the severe fires in Clark, Comanche and Reno counties were commanding a lot of the national attention, northwest Kansas suffered a significant amount of damage as well.
Homes, businesses and huge swaths of wide-open range succumbed to the rages of the flames in Ellis, Rooks, Thomas, Russell, Lincoln, Smith, Cheyenne, Ness and Lane counties. Highways closed and reopened as either fires were crossing them or smoke had obscured all visibility.
Ellis County Rural Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Darin Myers told The Hays Daily News fires this year already have burned more than half of what they did all of last year.
Myers estimated approximately 4,800 to 4,900 acres were burned in Ellis County alone by a fire that appeared to be accidental in nature, caused by a failed disconnect on a lighting arrester on an oil lease site. That caused a short and a spark, which started grass on fire.
Officials believe at least 40,000 acres burned near Lake Wilson. An estimated 10,240 acres have burned in Rooks County. Ness County Sheriff Bryan Whipple said the devastation from Monday’s wildfire in Ransom was something the area hasn’t seen before, burning several homes to the ground.
One fire near Gorham likely was caused by a spark from Interstate 70, either from a vehicle or a cigarette butt.
Gorham Fire Department’s Rob Corley said: “It’s just pretty crazy how many fires there were.”
No matter how many fires there were, no matter how fast they spread or how large they got, eventually they were brought under control because of firefighters. These brave men and women, and all who assisted them, are to be congratulated. Yes, it’s their job, but this week’s fires have pushed each department’s personnel and equipment well beyond their usual capacity.
We are grateful to have such dedicated professionals in our midst. Now all we need is a little cooperation from Mother Nature to provide overdue precipitation.