High winds scraping across the Kansas landscape Wednesday ripped down power lines, sparked fires and fanned flames that blew smoke from the Flint Hills through Kansas City and as far as the Great Lakes.
In Trego County, west of Hays, Kansas, exhausted volunteer firefighters battled what they could well into the night and prepared to head back out Thursday morning to tame grass fires singing acres of prairie and farmland.
At times, the winds gusted more than 100 mph in parts of Kansas, stoking wildfires from the Great Plains to the Missouri River Valley. “It’s just crazy,” said Kathleen Fabrizius, the emergency management director for Trego County. “I would have never ever thought that something like this could have happened.”
Fabrizius said she’s seen some of the largest Kansas wildfires in recent years.
“But this is not like those because it’s just across the entire county,” she said. “It was all sparked by power lines, and it was just one after the other. You don’t know which way to even go.” Fabrizius said all the downed power lines presented their own dangers. Firefighters couldn’t cross them until they were sure the lines were dead.
She said Trego County fires destroyed at least three homes along with outbuildings and several abandoned farmsteads. And she said flames were sprouting in all the nearby counties, too. That meant volunteer fire departments that ordinarily would have traveled in to help found themselves occupied battling flames closer to home. “Normally we would have backups from other counties,” Fabrizius said. “We just don’t have that. They’re all dealing with the same thing we are.”
Meanwhile, the winds blew down trees, ripped away roofs and tangled enough power lines that Evergy, the state’s largest electric utility, reported as many as 170,000 customers without power.
“We will not get everybody back on tonight. We will not be able to get everybody back on tomorrow,” said Evergy spokesman Chuck Caisley, according to The Kansas City Star. “This outage is going to extend in some areas into multiple days as the amount of damage would just be impossible to get done in a 24-hour period.”
The wind storm came with hail and triggered a series of tornado watches across the region. Caisley said the weather brought “some of the most widespread damage across our service territory that Evergy has ever seen.”
Some flights to Kansas City International Airport were diverted and outgoing flights were delayed after air traffic controllers were briefly evacuated from the cab of the tower.
Across Kansas, the winds limited visibility and sent semitractor-trailers weaving. Interstate 70 and a handful of other highways in western Kansas were closed down for hours.
Post Script from Kansas Public Radio: Strong winds in Great Bend toppled a church steeple, damaged the roof of the high school auditorium and knocked out power to numerous homes. KAKE TV in Wichita reports that authorities evacuated a south-central Kansas elementary school after wind blew the roof off the school's gymnasium. Students at Caldwell Elementary were sent home Wednesday and administrators are evaluating what to do next. Other parts of the school were also damaged, but no injuries were reported.