Southern Kansas heat wave isn’t ready to ease

The record-setting heat wave that scorched Wichita and much of southern Kansas on Sunday isn’t ready to let go just yet – even though it’s only early May.

After shattering records for “earliest 100” and highest temperature for May 4 on Sunday, Wichita is poised to top another heat record Tuesday. The record for May 6 is 91 in 1986, and forecasters are saying Tuesday’s high could hit 100 again.

If that happens, it’ll be the second time the old record of earliest century mark has been bettered this week, after Monday’s relative respite at 92 degrees. Sunday’s high of 102 in Wichita shattered the record of earliest temperature 101 or above by a full month: June 4, 1933.

There’s no special explanation for the early heat wave.

“I wish I had some really cool answer” for why it’s so hot so early, said Robb Lawson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

It’s been so dry for so long in the Wichita area, he said, that solar energy normally expended on evaporating moisture is heating the soil and air instead. If Wichita receives less than 0.36 of an inch of rain by May 8, this will be the driest start to a year since record-keeping began in Wichita in 1888.

Unfortunately, Lawson said, that appears likely to happen. While chances for showers and thunderstorms arrive later this week, he said, the best chances for rain will be east of Wichita.

“I would feel really confident (of rain) if I lived east of the turnpike, which has been the trend this spring,” Lawson said.

The surge in temperatures on Sunday caught Westar Energy off-guard. The utility had taken two substations down for seasonal maintenance, and the surge in demand overwhelmed the system, Westar spokesman Leonard Allen said.

“People started turning on the air conditioner,” Allen said. “The system just didn’t handle it.”

As many as 12,000 customers – most of them in west Wichita – were without electricity at one point on Sunday.

Usually at this time of year, he said, it’s cool enough for the utility to be able to prepare systems for the summer demand. Extra crews were brought in to complete maintenance on one of the substations, Allen said, and that should be completed by midweek.

A large fire near Park City on Sunday wasn’t related to the heat, Sedgwick County Fire Department Division Chief Dan Wegner said. Mulch at Evergreen Pallet, 302 W. 53rd St. North, spontaneously combusted and the flames spread to two nearby businesses.

Two large trailers at Air Capitol Delivery, 5840 N. Prospect Road, caught fire and burned, Wegner said. One of the trailers was full of polymer beads, he said, so it produced thick black smoke as it burned.

“It was a very impressive fire” visually, Wegner said.

The smoke plume prompted authorities to evacuate more than a dozen homes between 58th Street North and 61st Street North downwind of the fire, he said. Residents were allowed to return to their homes after a couple of hours, Park City Police Chief Phil Bostian said.

Several telephone poles stacked up at J&T Electric also burned, Wegner said. No damage estimate has been set, he said, but given how many semi-trailers filled with goods were spared from the fire, the figure could have been much higher.

Sizzling temperatures are likely to linger through Wednesday, Lawson said, before a front delivers chances for rain later in the week. But Wichita could miss out on most of the moisture, he said.

“The best chances are going to be east of I-135,” Lawson said.

Farmers have been calling him and asking when it’s going to rain, Lawson said. He wishes he could give them a good answer, he said.

But he’s not ready to write the summer off. Last spring started off pretty dry, too, he said, before a shift in the weather pattern brought abundant rain to south-central Kansas in July and August.

“It’s not like places aren’t getting rain,” he said. “Wichita’s just not.”