Burning cotton bales on a flatbed semi set several grass fires along U.S. 54

Burning cotton bales on a flatbed semi set several grass fires along U.S. 54 between the Kansas Natural Gas facility and the Mullinville overpass in Kiowa County on March 15. Blackhawk Helicopters and ground fire units from seven counties joined forces Friday, March 15 to battle several fires on U.S. 54 between the Kansas Natural Gas facility and Mullinville in Kiowa County. The fires started when processed cotton bales on flat bed semi, driven by Robert Howell of Pratt County, caught fire while he was westbound on U.S. 54 heading to Liberal to Plains Cotton Cooperative Association.  He was hauling processed cotton bales from the Next GINeration Cotton Gin at Cullison, Howell said. The first of several fires ignited in the ditch on the south side of the Kansas Natural Gas DCP Mainstream facility about three miles east of Mullinville. Three ditch fires burned across the facility but nothing on the plant facility was damaged, said Kiowa County Fire Chief Jay Koehn. The burning bales on the semi trailer continued to ignite fires as Howell made his way under the overpass on the east side of Mullinville. Howell said he saw the fire coming off the bales at the underpass and was looking for a place to stop.  He pulled the truck to the side of the road at the intersection of 54 and 11th Avenue on the east side of Mullinville. He jumped out, unhooked the trailer and pulled away without letting the trailer stand wheels down and moved the 2004 Peterbuilt tractor, owned by Eubank Cattle Company, to the south side of the highway. Howell and his dog Dandy were not injured. Winds pushed the fire north off the Northern Natural Gas property and into tall grass then it jumped the train tracks and continued to burn north for about a mile.  The fire ignited several railroad ties and train traffic came to a stop as ground and air units attacked the fire. All the median grass from U.S. 54 to the overpass east of Mullinville and north across the railroad caught fire. Blackhawk helicopters from Dodge City made repeated water dumps on the fire north of the Natural Gas facility and across the railroad tracks before making dumps on the grass by the overpass. The helicopters filled their buckets at the Kiowa County Lake and made repeated passes over the fire. Meanwhile, ground units from Kiowa, Ford, Clark, Comanche, Edwards and Pratt Counties plus Minneola attacked the fire at multiple locations along the burn path, said Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Brent Hemken.  Traffic on U.S. 54 where the trailer and bales were burning was reduced to one lane of traffic with Kansas Department of Transportation providing traffic control. The bales burned with such intensity that the aluminum melted on the trailer and made little rivers into the ditch. Several fire units stayed close to the trailer to prevent the fire from igniting grass on the west side of 11th Avenue. Koehn said the Blackhawk helicopters came from Dodge City but he wasn’t certain of their base of origin. The fire threatened a couple of residences and one small out-building was destroyed. The property owner at that residence had been fighting the fire and told Koehn he thought he had burned his lungs, said Koehn who took the man to the hospital for treatment.  The man’s identity was not released. Other than the one out-building, no other structures or property was damaged in the fire. The firefighters were on scene for several hours Thursday afternoon.

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