DISASTERS

Q&A: A look at questions about current US wildfires

Wildfires scorching hundreds of square miles of Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma have been blamed in at least six deaths as of Wednesday. Thousands of people have been displaced by the wind-whipped flames.

Here's a look at the situation:

WHAT'S BURNING?

Kansas has logged more than 1,000 square miles of scorched land in a blaze that appears to be the largest in the state's recorded history. Roughly 2,000 firefighters are scrambling to contain the flames. A single fire has charred an estimated 748 square miles in the ranching and farming communities of Clark and Comanche counties alone, topping the 435 square miles that burned last year in the state's largest recorded wildfire.

At least 70 structures in Kansas have been damaged or destroyed.

In addition, three wildfires in the Texas Panhandle have burned nearly 750 square miles of rural land, while more than 540 square miles of property has been blackened in Oklahoma. Dozens of square miles also have been charred in northeastern Colorado.

WHAT CAUSES SUCH BLAZES?

It's not yet clear what sparked the wildfires that are raging.

But Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said human activity causes most wildfires in the prairie — a cigarette thrown from a car or sometimes a spark from a catalytic converter. Bunting said lightning accounts for 25 percent of wildfires.

WHAT'S STOKING THE FLAMES?

Parched conditions, strong winds and low humidity put the region at risk for wildfires. All of eastern Colorado is classified as either moderately or abnormally dry along with much of Kansas and Oklahoma, and some of northern Texas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly tracker of dry conditions across the U.S.

Noting the abundance of vegetation fuel, drought conditions and windiness in the southern central Plains, Liz Leitman, a Storm Prediction Center meteorologist, said Wednesday that "everything has come together to overlap to create a pretty volatile situation."

COULD THE OUTBREAK BE CYCLICAL?

Leitman said the latest outbreak of wildfires "seems to be, at least in my experience, a naturally occurring cycle for this area" and "not unusual for this time of year."

She said the last large outbreak came in late 2010 and into 2011, when similar conditions caused wildfires that scorched more than 4,000 square miles in Texas and Arizona.

COULD CLIMATE CHANGE BE IN PLAY?

In 2013, University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles warned that the frequency and intensity of wildfires likely would increase in the coming years, given the confluence of such factors as higher temperatures, untamed underbrush and less rain.

Wuebbles, a co-author of a draft federal report linking climate change to an increase in severe weather trends, postulated then to National Geographic that "this probably is the new normal."

"Thirty years from now, we may look upon this as being a much better period than what we may be facing then," he said then.

WHAT'S THE COST?

Officials in the states affected by the ongoing wildfires haven't released estimates of the economic losses from damaged or destroyed homes, businesses and livestock — or the expense of firefighters' efforts to knock down the flames. But it's expected those costs will run well into the millions of dollars.

During last year's massive wildfire along the Kansas-Oklahoma border, for example, firefighting costs reached $1.5 million in Barber County — the Kansas county hardest hit by that blaze. That county's emergency management chief, Jerry McNamar, said the county's economic losses included 750 to 800 cattle that died in the county, along with at least 2,700 miles of fence, worth $27 million, that was destroyed.