2 dead in Kansas wildfires fueled by windy, dry weather

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The setting sun is shrouded in smoke from a fire that burned and stretched across Ellis, Russell, Osborne and Rooks counties Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, near Natoma, Kan. Firefighters and emergency responders are battling fires spreading across parts of central and western Kansas after a powerful storm blew through the state. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Two men have died from injuries suffered in wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres across Kansas this week, authorities said Friday.

Richard Shimanek, 84, a farmer and rancher who lived near Leoti, died Thursday night at a hospital in Denver, Leoti Mayor and Fire Chief Charlie Hughes said. He was outside his home trying to fight the fire Wednesday when he fell and couldn’t get up, Hughes said.

The Ellis County sheriff’s office said Friday that the remains of Derrick Kelley, 36, were found near his burned vehicle in a rural area of the county. The coroner identified the remains, the sheriff’s office said.

Kelley was last seen in Hays on Wednesday, shortly before his fiancee reported him missing. The sheriff’s office said he was believed to be driving on county roads toward Natoma.

Both men were killed in wildfires that erupted Wednesday in western and central Kansas, fueled by dry conditions and winds up to 90 mph (145 kph). The Kansas Forest Service said 625 square miles (1,620 square kilometers) burned in 11 counties in western Kansas, with smaller fires in other counties.

In the small town of Paradise in Russell County, one family was counting its blessings but also mourning the loss of their home and cows.

Brett Thompson, the 58-year-old mayor of Paradise, suffered eye injuries when he tried to rescue his cattle herd, said his daughter, Caity Thompson. While he was out, his home burned down — the only house in the town of about 50 to be destroyed by the fire.

His wife escaped before their home was destroyed, and the family’s grain elevator business was also spared, said Caity Thompson, a teacher in Jetmore who returned home when she heard about the fire.

“It’s a mixture of emotions,” she said. “We’re devastated that the house is gone, along with half our cattle herd and a lot of our livelihood. But we still have the grain elevator, my grandma and sister still have their houses, and the main thing is my dad is alive.”

As the fire moved through the region Wednesday, residents in Paradise and three other small towns were evacuated, said Dustin Finkenbinder, fire chief in nearby Waldo. The fire destroyed an area about 45 miles (72 kilometers) long, he told The Kansas City Star.

“We fought fire and winds 50 miles an hour before, but nothing like maybe 100 miles an hour. So we just kind of did what we could,” he said. “As far as damage, I mean I guess catastrophic would be the right word.”

Several smaller fires across the state were contained by Friday and crews were monitoring them to prevent reignitions, said Shawna Hartman, spokeswoman for the Kansas Forest Service.

But several larger fires were still burning , some in areas that were inaccessible to ground crews, she said. Officials were using helicopters to dump water on those fires, in an attempt to knock back the flames and heat and allow ground crews in.

It will take several days to determine how many acres burned and to completely contain the blazes and make the areas safe, she said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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