Wind conditions should ease, helping crews battle wildfires

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HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - Winds are expected to slow down Wednesday, but weather conditions are still not ideal for emergency crews battling deadly wildfires in largely rural areas of four states, which have choked the air with smoke and burned hundreds of square miles of land.

Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief for the Oklahoma-based Storm Prediction Center, said the powerful gusts that fanned the wildfires in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas should ease to about 10 to 20 mph on Wednesday. He expected temperatures to peak in the 70s, with afternoon humidity low.

"These conditions will make it somewhat easier for firefighting efforts, but far from perfect. The fires still will be moving," Bunting said. "The ideal situation is that it would turn cold and rain, and unfortunately that's not going to happen."

Nearly 6 million people live in areas at risk of critical wildfire conditions, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and Kansas City, the Storm Prediction Center said. Forecasters said conditions were also ripe for fires in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.

Kansas wildfires have burned about 1,025 square miles of land and killed a tractor-trailer driver who succumbed to smoke after getting out of his jackknifed rig. Kansas authorities said Tuesday that the fires have damaged or destroyed about 70 structures.

About half of the state's charred land is in Clark County, along the state's southern border with Oklahoma, where 548 square miles have burned and about 30 homes have been destroyed, said Millie Fudge, the county's emergency manager. She said she expects the burned land estimates to increase, but that she hopes the fire will be contained Wednesday.

"Who knows what the day will bring," Fudge said.

Another 235 square miles burned in neighboring Comanche County, Kansas, with smaller areas of burned land from separate fires spread among six other counties. Two-thousand firefighters and nine helicopters are working to control the blazes, which ranged from 9 percent to 90 percent contained.

The most populated area affected is Reno County, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily evacuated their homes Monday. Up to 2,000 residents are still displaced, said Katie Horner, a state Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman.

The largest of the Kansas fires started in Oklahoma, where it burned an estimated 390 square miles in Beaver County. A separate blaze scorched more than 155 square miles of land in neighboring Harper County and was a factor in the death of a woman who had a heart attack while trying to keep her farm from burning. Oklahoma forestry officials said they hadn't been able to contain the fires at all as of Wednesday morning.

State emergency officials in Oklahoma also reported that eight people have been treated at hospitals for breathing complications caused by the smoky air.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback have declared disaster emergencies.

In the Texas Panhandle, three fires burned nearly 750 square miles of land and killed at least four people. One, near Amarillo, was fully contained by late Tuesday afternoon, while a larger fire in the northeast corner of the Panhandle was 60 percent contained, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. That larger fire was responsible for a death on Monday, authorities said.

A wildfire in Gray County, also in the Texas Panhandle, killed three ranch hands trying to save cattle, said Judge Richard Peet, the county's head administrator. Three firefighters were hurt battling the fires in Texas, Forest Service spokesman Phillip Truitt said Wednesday.

In northeastern Colorado, firefighters battled a blaze that burned more than 45 square miles and was 50 percent contained Tuesday. Officials said the fire had destroyed at least 20 structures, with no serious injuries.

Dry conditions and strong winds have put the region at risk for wildfires. All of eastern Colorado is classified as either moderately or abnormally dry along with major parts of Kansas, almost all of Oklahoma and some of northern Texas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.