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Fires break out in area

6/28/2012

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

As temperatures sizzled again Wednesday, already tinder-dry grasses erupted in flames as large fires were reported in Phillips, Rooks, Ellis and Russell counties.

Ellis County crews remained on the scene of a Wednesday fire that burned into the early morning hours and Rooks County firefighters already were responding to yet another fire this morning. They already had responded to at least two fires Wednesday, one of which scorched hundreds of acres of rough terrain.

The outbreak of fires prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to issue an emergency declaration in nine Kansas counties -- including the four hard hit by the out-of-control grass fires. The declaration, however, only partially activates the state emergency operations center in Topeka, allowing state agencies to keep in contact with county emergency managers.

Emergency management directors joined rural fire departments in the region Wednesday to battle the fires.

Wednesday was the second day for big fires, following on the heels of a massive fire west of Oberlin that scorched several thousand acres.

Details concerning Wednesday's fires remain scant, as fire chiefs and emergency managers either still were trying to assess the damage or rushing to the scene of new and old fires.

In the case of the Ellis County fire along the Saline River Road east of U.S. Highway 183, at least two homes were in the path of the advancing fire.

"Nothing was damaged," Ellis County Rural Fire Chief Dick Klaus said of homes or outbuildings in the area.

Klaus didn't leave the scene until early this morning and was heading back there to assess the overall damage.

Two fire crews remained on the scene overnight, according to Ellis County Emergency Management Director Bill Ring.

The rough terrain hampered firefighters, who struggled to get trucks into areas where the fires -- pushed along by strong winds -- were burning.

"You could see it glow," Ring said of fires burning in the night, "but you didn't know how you were going to get there in the night."

For a time, the Saline River area, a large oil-producing part of the county, had its power shut off as power poles caught fire.

"I don't know how many poles were burned through," Ring said. "They killed the power to the whole area up there. There were poles that were burned right through and were suspended by the wires."

The continuing scorching temperatures were unrelenting as well.

Hill City, for a second day in a row, was the hot spot in the nation, again hitting 115 degrees.

The temperature set a new record, smashing the old record of 107 set in 1940 and matching a new monthly record -- one that was set Tuesday.

Everywhere in northwest Kansas, the temperatures topped the century mark, most at or above the 110-degree threshold.

Goodland hit 110 on Wednesday, breaking the old record of 106 set in 1940.

A number of locations hit 113, including Russell, the Hays Water Softening Plant, WaKeeney, Atwood and Russell Springs.

At the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center south of Hays, Wednesday's high topped out at 114, a new record, beating out 107 in 1940 and 1980.

The forecast continues to offer no relief, with the 100-plus temperatures now forecast through Monday. Precipitation chances remain virtually nonexistent.