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Wildfires in central United States kill six, force thousands from homes

Flames and smoke envelope a grain elevator in Sitka, Kan., early March 7, 2017.

Bo Rader/AP

Crews grappling with vexing wildfires that have charred hundreds of square miles of land in four states and killed six people soon may get a bit of a break: Winds are forecast to ease from the gusts that whipped the flames.

Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief for the Oklahoma-based Storm Prediction Center, said Tuesday the powerful wind gusts that fanned the wildfires in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas should diminish to about 10 to 20 mph on Tuesday. He said temperatures should top 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 told The Associated Press. "The ideal situation is that it would turn cold and rain, and unfortunately that's not going to happen."

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In addition to those four states, conditions were ripe for fires in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. That followed powerful thunderstorms that moved through the middle of the country overnight, spawning dozens of suspected tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.

Kansas wildfires have burned about 625 square miles of land and killed one person. The Kansas Highway Patrol said Corey Holt, of Oklahoma City, died Monday when his tractor-trailer jackknifed as he tried to back up because of poor visibility on a Kansas highway, and he succumbed to smoke after getting out of his vehicle. Two SUVs crashed into the truck, injuring six people, state trooper Michael Racy said.

Most of the state's charred land is in Clark County, where 30 structures were damaged, said Allison Kuhns, a county emergency management office spokeswoman. About half of those structures are near Englewood, one of two communities evacuated. Kuhns said there also have been significant cattle losses as entire ranches were engulfed.

That fire started in Oklahoma, where it burned an estimated 390 square miles in Beaver County. Officials say a separate blaze scorched more than 155 square miles of land in neighbouring Harper County, Oklahoma, and was a factor in the death of a woman who had a heart attack while trying to keep her farm near Buffalo from burning.

The largest evacuations elsewhere were in Reno County, Kansas, where 10,000 to 12,000 people voluntarily left their homes Monday night, said Katie Horner, a state Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman. She said 66 people were in shelters Tuesday in Hutchinson, 40 miles northwest of Wichita.

Among them was Shelley Wilson, who fled Monday with her disabled son and pets from a blaze encircling her farm outside of Hutchinson. She returned later that night with her adult daughter to retrieve her tractor.

"I don't know if I have a home," Wilson said at the shelter Tuesday as her daughter did her best to lighten her mood. "In case I needed to rebuild, I wanted to at least have my tractor."

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Retiree Sheryl Stessen said she grabbed her cat and fled her apartment on the outskirts of Hutchinson when she saw the fire quickly go from a puff of smoke to a big, orange ball.

"Most of us are generally grumpy," she said Tuesday. "I just want to go home."

Several hundred more people evacuated their homes in Russell, Ellsworth and Comanche counties, in central Kansas.

In the Texas Panhandle, three fires burned about 500 square miles of land and killed at least four people. One of them near Amarillo threatened about 150 homes, while a larger fire in the northeast corner of the Panhandle near the Oklahoma border was 50 per cent contained as of late Tuesday morning, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. That larger fire was responsible for a death on Monday, authorities said Tuesday without providing details.

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. One of the three apparently died of smoke inhalation Monday night and the other two were badly burned and died on the way to hospitals, he said.

Forest Service spokesman Phillip Truitt said as many as four firefighters were hurt battling the fires Monday. He provided no details on their conditions Tuesday morning.

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In northeastern Colorado near the Nebraska border, firefighters battled a blaze that burned more than 45 square miles and was 50 per cent contained Tuesday. Officials said the fire had destroyed at least five homes and 15 outbuildings, with no serious injuries.

Dry conditions and strong winds had 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.

After several years of drought, Kansas got good to great rain the last two summers. But the taller grass provides more fuel to burn.

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