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Wind storms hit the Midwest, starting fires and knocking millions off the power grid

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Imagine a wildfire charging toward you at more than 50 miles an hour. Now imagine a swarm of them. That's what happened yesterday in Kansas. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that wasn't even the strangest part of a storm that knocked some million customers across nine states off the power grid.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On the high plains yesterday, gusts topping 100 miles an hour drove power lines to the ground, igniting bone-dry grass, trees and crop residue, touching up dozens of fires that raced across the prairie. Even seasoned first responders like Kathleen Fabrizius were amazed.

KATHLEEN FABRIZIUS: It was absolutely crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).

FABRIZIUS: OK. I'll have him check on it.

MORRIS: Fabrizius is the Trego County, Kansas, emergency manager and a volunteer firefighter there. Today, she's still out battling flames and fielding reports of new hot spots.

FABRIZIUS: Right. Yeah. Pulling up and telling me that I've got, you know, poles on fire or, you know, different things going on. So...

MORRIS: It's work that takes a personal toll.

FABRIZIUS: I mean, basically, you know, a big chunk of my county was on fire. And, you know, I personally know everybody who lost houses last night. So it's hard.

MORRIS: Hundreds of thousands of acres burned in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas - all this happening in a thick shroud of dust, lifted by the wind.

FABRIZIUS: It was everything going on, all at the same time. It was crazy. It was like it was dark in the middle of the day.

MORRIS: Trucks tipped over, power was knocked out. All the major highways were shut down. It was like a blizzard but worse.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: This is one of those events that, honestly, as a meteorologist, you know, we will think about and remember for our careers.

MORRIS: Matthew Elliott watched the storm unfold from the bunker-like Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

ELLIOTT: It's an unprecedented event. We have people who've been working for us for 30-plus years, and they had not seen something like this before.

MORRIS: The storm didn't stop in Kansas. A long, thin line of intense thunderstorms marauded about 700 miles across the prairie from there, racing at an average 65 miles an hour.

ELLIOTT: You know, these storms are moving faster than cars are technically allowed to drive by law. And that's quite a phenomenon there.

MORRIS: And Elliott says the storms swept into Minnesota, sprouting what may turn out to be an unprecedented midwinter tornado there - three months earlier than any on record. The storms were still packing enormous power when they blew into Stanley, Wis., at night, decimating buildings, tossing insulation and twisted metal through the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW WHIRRING)

MORRIS: Crews are cleaning up in Stanley today, and 75-year-old Richard Washburn is coming to terms with his storm-ravaged house.

RICHARD WASHBURN: There's a big tree in my room, so - and then the power pole broke off in front of my house. And that was leaning toward the house.

MORRIS: Meteorologist Matthew Elliott says yesterday's storms were too strong and hit too far north for this time of year. He says that climate change may well have been a driver but that it's too early to say that conclusively. That's partly because the sample size of storms like the ones that raked the plains yesterday is incredibly small.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.