On Dec. 15, Kansas experienced a meteorological first. Multiple counties across the state, including Barton, were impacted by the first-recorded December derecho in U.S. history. Instead of rolling prairielands covered in snow, Kansans recently watched footage of howling winds and farmland set ablaze by windswept wildfires.
The Kansas Forest Service estimated that nearly 165,000 acres were burned. But, residents, county officials and a host of state agencies continue to add up the cost of the freak storm.
According to Wichita-based National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Martin, a derecho (pronounced similar to “deh-REY-cho”) is a widespread, long-lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Although these events can produce tornado-like damage, they consist of straight-line winds.
“This stretched all the way from Kansas to the upper Midwest,” Martin said. It started as far south as Wichita and extended into Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The wind storm was rare for another reason as well, Martin said. While the derecho, which was associated with a band of thunderstorms, swept over the region, a massive area of low-pressure-related gale-force winds roared from the desert Southwest north to the Great Lakes.
“What is unique is that we had two significant wind-generating events happening at the same time,” he said. Both are uncommon, but having them simultaneously is even more so.
This is where Barton County fits into the picture as it straddled both. There was the wind, but there was also a smattering of rain.
“You had a bit of both,” Martin said.
Unlike the typically narrow paths of tornados, derechos are widespread, long-lived weather events in which sustained wind gusts of over 58 mph create damaging paths that are at least 50 miles wide and stretch over 250 miles in length. The widespread nature of derechos often means a costly impact for multiple communities and the recent storm in Kansas is no exception, according to the Kansas Insurance Commission.
While the Kansas Forest Service and the Kansas Department of Agriculture are gathering information on the acreage and farm losses, it is too soon to have a statewide damage total, said Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Jane Welch.
“We are in the process of getting damage assessments from the counties,” she said. “When you are getting information from 105 counties, it is a little labor intensive.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Laura Kelly and Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam met with Kansas farmers and ranchers in Russell and Osborne counties who were effected.
“Today, I had the opportunity to meet with Kansans impacted by the wildfires to discuss how best the State of Kansas can support their recovery,” Kelly said. “While our farmers and ranchers have always persevered through challenges, we know the storm and wildfires caused significant damage to homes, livestock, and crops – so it’s critical that we mobilize all of the available resources to aid their recovery.”
“It’s heartwarming to witness how neighbors have pulled together to help each other during these times of need,” Beam said. “We are also grateful to see the tremendous volume of hay and monetary donations that have come in from outside this region and from other states as well.”
“During Christmas week, staff and I had the opportunity to visit several communities impacted by the recent wildfires and destructive winds topping 100 miles per hour,” said Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt. “Smoke still filled the air when community leaders took me and my staff on a tour of charred-over farmland that surrounded their community.”
Thousands of acres were burned, cattle were killed, and millions of dollars of property was lost in multiple prairie fires.
On Dec. 9, Kelly declared a State of Disaster Emergency due to the elevated dangers of wildfires. On Dec. 16, she directed the Kansas National Guard and Kansas Forest Service to deploy aerial assets to the affected areas to assist with fire suppression efforts in multiple counties with active wildfires.
On Dec. 15, Barton County followed suit when the County Commission signed a disaster declaration.
This declaration speeds the process of notifying the Kansas Division of Emergency Management so it could forward the information on to the Federal Emergency Management Agency more quickly.