Warm weather brings a taste of spring to central and western United States

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A warm front swept springlike weather across a large swath of the country Sunday in what is usually one of the coldest months of the year, sending people out of their homes to enjoy the rare winter respite but also bringing increased wildfire danger.

In Omaha, Nebraska, the temperature Sunday broke 65 degrees (18.3 degrees Celsius) on a day when the average high temperature is around the freezing mark, according to the National Weather Service.

“Omaha is having its second warmest February on record in its 154-year history of tracking weather,” National Weather Service meteorologist Michaela Wood said Sunday. “And there’s a chance of beating the record yet tomorrow, when we’re looking at a high temperature of around 80.”

The sunny warmth brought Stacy Lawson, and her husband, Hugh Lawson, of Omaha, outside for a game of pickleball with friends. But they weren’t the only ones.

“Outdoor courts are prime real estate when it’s warm,” Stacy Lawson said. “The first one we tried was already filled.”

The Lawsons and their competitors, Tim and Andrea Driscoll, had a hard time remembering the last year they were able to play outside in February.

“In Nebraska, February is both the shortest and longest month of the year,” Tim Driscoll deadpanned.

While the warmer-than-usual temperatures may have provided a break from harsh winter conditions, it didn’t come without some concerns. The National Weather Service cited the warmth, along with low humidity, winds gusting more than 35 mph (56 kph) in places, and dry winter vegetation in issuing fire danger alerts in an area stretching across parts of 11 states.

Red flag warnings and fire weather watches were issued in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, up to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and east to Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Nearby states, including parts of Arkansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, were issued hazardous weather outlooks because of an increased fire danger, according to weather service maps.

Grass fires were reported in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, area on Sunday as a red flag warning was in effect for much of the eastern part of the state.

A fire has burned approximately 3 square miles (2.6 square kilometers) of land at the Fort Carson Army post south of Colorado Springs. The fire started in an area where artillery can land or hand grenades and guns are used in training exercises, said spokesperson John Switzer. The cause of the fire is under investigation, and no buildings were immediately threatened.

A much smaller brush fire was burning on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy north of Colorado Springs, spokesperson Katherine Spessa said. No buildings are threatened, but some pre-evacuation instructions were being given, she said.

A grassfire whipped up by high winds closed Interstate 25 near the Colorado-Wyoming border for about an hour Saturday before it was extinguished, according to the Wyoming Highway Patrol.

The unusually early warm spell could telegraph trouble ahead, Wood said. The Climate Prediction Center says there is an elevated chance of higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal rain for the region through the end of summer.

“If we keep going in this trend, we could go back into a drought, and that would be a big concern — especially when it comes to fire risk,” she said.

Temperatures reached into the 60s in Denver, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday, and Kansas City, Missouri, saw temperatures in the mid-70s. The unseasonably warm conditions saw plenty of people heading outdoors to play in local parks, wash their cars and even get an early jump on lawn care.

In Chicago, people who would normally be in winter gear to fight off the city’s famously bitter winter winds instead frolicked around Lake Michigan’s shores in light jackets or even shorts and T-shirts.

Bethany Scheiner, 53, took advantage of the weather to head with her 14-year-old son to Lincoln Park in Chicago so he could practice his football punting skills.

“It’s so unusual,” Scheiner said of the warm weather. “I mean, this is the month we all go away to get away from the Chicago winter.”

The warmup is expected to bring some record-breaking high temperatures Monday, Wood said. But by Tuesday night, a cold front will drop the region back into winter, with wind chills below zero and snow in much of the central part of the country by Wednesday.

Dry February keeps most of state in drought conditions

By Dar Danielson (Radio Iowa)

Hopes raised in January for a turnaround in the state drought situation went away as February turned dry.

Iowa DNR Hydrologist, Tim Hall says the latest Drought Monitor Report shows that. “There’s a significant chunk of the state of Iowa right, now about almost 20% of the state that’s rated by the drought monitor as extreme drought in northeast Iowa,” Hall says. He says that runs from Linn and Benton County north all the way up to the Minnesota border.

And 56% of the state is rated in severe drought. “In the wintertime when nothing’s growing and we don’t think about water use, it’s kind of easy to stop remembering where we are. But we still have more than half of the state rated in severe drought. And that’s a problem moving into the spring months and the growing season,” Hall says.

He says the January snow was good, but when it melted in February, it illustrated how dry things are. ”We had two feet of snow in the state over large parts of the state, and it all melted fairly quickly, and we saw zero instances of flooding,” Hall says. “And that just tells me that the soils are so incredibly dry.” Hall says the dry soil sucked up most of the snow melt and there was not a lot left to refill empty streams and rivers. “To have that amount of snow melt off and have no even localized flooding is a very surprising thing,” he says.

The snow came in January which was one inch above normal for precipitation. But Hall says all that surplus has gone away in what may end up being the driest February on record.
“So the pattern of wet month, dry month, wet month, dry month, that doesn’t help us much. We need wet month, wet month, wet month, wet month,” Hall says. He says we typically get a lot more rain in the spring months, and we’ll need that to work toward getting rid of the drought.

Mahaska County Courthouse Will Close Early Today

OSKALOOSA — The Mahaska County Courthouse will have altered hours of operation today, 2/26, as courthouse staff will be participating in various safety courses.

The Mahaska County Sheriff’s office and EMA are holding various safety courses for Courthouse staff.  Office hours for each department will vary. Courthouse staff asks that you call ahead if you plan to visit the courthouse. At 2 pm, the entire Courthouse will be closed for the remainder of the day for on-site safety drills.

Red Flag Warning Today

By Sam Parsons

A red flag warning is in effect for our area today.

The National Weather Service in Des Moines issued a red flag warning for all of central Iowa, which is in effect from 9am this morning until 6pm this evening. 

A Red Flag Warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now, or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.

Today, winds out of the southwest are expected to remain around 15-25 mph for most of the day, gusting to around 30-35 mph. Humidity is expected to hover around 15-25%.

Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly. Outdoor burning is not recommended. A few counties in central to western Iowa already have burn bans in effect.

Volkswagen to recall 261,000 cars to fix pump problem that can let fuel leak and increase fire risk

DETROIT (AP) — Volkswagen is recalling more than 261,000 cars in the U.S. to fix a potential fuel leak that can increase the risk of fires.

The recall covers certain Audi A3s and VW Golfs and GTIs from the 2015 through 2020 model years. Also included are 2015 through 2019 Golf Sportwagens, and 2019 and 2020 VW Jettas. All the recalled cars have front-wheel drive.

VW says in documents posted Thursday by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that a problem with a pump seal can let fuel leak from a charcoal canister in the emissions control system. The agency says leaking fuel increases the risk of a fire.

Dealers will replace the pump, which is inside the fuel tank, at no cost to owners. VW will send out notification letters starting April 12.

The recall is the second for many of the car owners. VW recalled about 110,000 cars for the same problem in 2016, but the company found that the replacement pumps from the previous recall also were failing.

U.S. safety regulators opened an investigation into the problem last year after getting 79 complaints of fuel leaks from owners.

VW said in documents that it had 1,410 warranty claims with repair dates from May of 2016 through December of last year. The documents say no fires related to the problem have been identified.

House votes for 3% hike in per pupil spending for Iowa schools

By O. Kay Henderson (Radio Iowa)

Republicans in the Iowa House have voted to provide a 3% boost in per pupil state funding for public schools in the next academic year, as well as a 3% increase in state payments into Education Savings Accounts for private school students who’ll qualify for the program.

Representative Phil Thompson, a Republican from Boone, said the plan calls for $3.8 billion in state spending on public schools in the next school year. “I am proud of this investment in our public schools,” Thompson said, “especially when you put it in context with the other pieces of the education funding puzzle that we’re bringing forward this year: teacher salaries, paraeducator pay, school security infrastructure.”

Representative Molly Buck, a Democrat from Ankeny, said with a 3% increase in per pupil spending, the 116 public school districts with shrinking enrollment will raise local propertya taxes to fill a gap, so next year’s budget isn’t lower than this year’s.

“How are rural schools going to keep the lights on?” she asked. “…At what point do we stop and realize that we, in the legislature, are responsible for the shuttering of our schools?”

Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City, said 3% just isn’t enough for schools dealing with inflation and trying to keep salaries high enough to hire and retain staff.

“Three percent is totally inadequate for our schools. They have been cutting and cutting and cutting over the last 12 years,” Steckman said. “They have reached a point where there’s not much left to cut.”

House Republicans plan to vote later to set beginning teacher salaries at $50,000 within two years. They’re also proposing raises for paraeducators. House Speaker Pat Grassley said those moves are priorities for House Republicans.

“My expectation is that the legislature acts on a bill addressing teacher salaries,” Grassley said. “I just don’t know what it looks like at this point.”

A Senate committee has voted to increase the mandatory minimum salary for beginning teachers to just over $46,000. In January, Governor Reynolds recommended a $50,000 minimum salary for first-year teachers, as well as a $62,000 minimum salary for those who’ve been teaching for at least 12 years.

Traffic Modifications Start Next Week in Ottumwa for OHS Athletic Center Construction

OTTUMWA — Beginning Monday, February 26, 2024, the contractor constructing the new OHS Athletic Center will begin setting up construction fencing and traffic control around the construction zone. During the project, there will be NO PARKING allowed on College Street from Main Street to Second Street, the alley between College Street and Union Street will be closed to through traffic, and Second Street will have limited lane width. Throughout the duration of the project, the access on Second Street will vary. Updated notices will be sent out at those times. Motorists are advised to seek alternate routes and if it is necessary to navigate within the construction zone, please do so with caution. 

Mahaska Chamber Unveils 2024 Explore Mahaska County Guide

OSKALOOSA — The Mahaska Chamber & Development Group’s Tourism Committee is pleased to announce the publication of the 2024 Explore Mahaska County guide.

Inside the guide, readers from all over will discover five feature stories centering around the Mahaska Chamber’s “Play, Stay, Enjoy, Live, and Grow” messaging, plus a calendar of annual Chamber and Oskaloosa Main Street community events. Planning a day trip or even a staycation in Mahaska County? The Explore Guide has you covered with a 24-hour itinerary. Feeling adventurous? Take a walk or hike to the “Five Best Views in Mahaska County.”

The Tourism Committee hopes to showcase all the amazing things Mahaska County has to offer. Whether you’re a local resident or traveling through, this year’s guide will lead you to gems near and dear to the Mahaska County community.

“It’s amazing how many things our communities have to offer in arts, family fun, recreation, and so much more,” said Deann De Groot, Mahaska Chamber Executive Director. “Dive into a one-stop information guide for all the wonderful ways to explore Mahaska County with both local quality of life and tourism in mind.”

Follow along with creators of all kinds as the guide navigates arts and culture and recreation in Mahaska County. From original paintings to life-size puppets to woolly mammoths. There’s truly something to be discovered by everyone. Have you heard the buzz about the “What’s Good Project”? See the artwork come to life from the studio to the world by journeying through town and speaking with locals. This guide also includes maps of Oskaloosa, Mahaska County, and the Mahaska Community Recreation Trail. Find Mahaska Chamber member businesses and organizations located in the directory.

“This year’s guide is full of all the reasons I love Mahaska County,” said MaKenzie Burk, Tourism Committee Chair. “I am excited for visitors and community members to see what makes us unique whether it is our conservation, restaurants’, the arts, history, recreation, and so much more! Come for a day or an extended stay in Mahaska County and I know you will love it too!”

The 2024 Explore Mahaska Guide is available for free at the Mahaska Chamber office located at 222 1st Ave E, in Oskaloosa. Questions? Call 641.672.2591. The Tourism Committee will also be distributing guides to businesses throughout the county and visitor centers across the state. Explore Mahaska Guide can also be accessed electronically. Use this link to view, https://www.mahaskachamber.org/visit/

Trial of ‘Rust’ armorer to begin in fatal film rehearsal shooting by Alec Baldwin

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Attorneys prepared to make opening statements Thursday at the first trial related to the fatal shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal for the Western film “Rust.”

Before Baldwin’s case progresses, the movie’s weapons supervisor is being tried on charges of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on Oct. 21, 2021, on a movie ranch outside Santa Fe.

Armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed has pleaded not guilty to the charges and says she’s not directly to blame for Hutchins’ death. In court filings, lead defense counsel Jason Bowles has pointed to findings by workplace safety regulators of broad problems that extended beyond the armorer’s control.

Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Gutierrez-Reed unwittingly brought live ammunition onto a film set where it was expressly prohibited. They say the armorer missed multiple opportunities to ensure safety, eventually loading a live round into the gun that killed Hutchins.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge in a separate case.

Prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis initially dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin in April, saying they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned. A more recent analysis of the gun concluded the “trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver.”

At the trial of Gutierrez-Reed, jurors from the Santa Fe area were sworn in Wednesday at the end of a daylong selection process that involved questions about exposure to media coverage and social media chatter about the case. Four jurors will initially serve as alternates to a panel of 12.

Gutierrez-Reed, the stepdaughter of renowned sharpshooter and weapons consultant Thell Reed, was 24 at the time of Hutchins’ death.

She faces up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The evidence tampering charge stems from accusations she handed a small bag of possible narcotics to another crew member after the shooting to avoid detection by law enforcement.

Her attorneys say that charge is prosecutors’ attempt to smear Gutierrez-Reed’s character. The bag was thrown away without testing the contents, defense attorneys said.

The trial is scheduled to run through March 6, with more than 40 potential witnesses.

Baldwin, the lead actor and a co-producer on “Rust,” doesn’t appear on a pretrial witness lists, and could invoke protections against self-incrimination if pressed. His trail date has not been set.

Baldwin has said he pulled back the gun’s hammer — not the trigger — and the weapon fired. He was indicted by a grand jury in January.

Gutierrez-Reed’s attorneys say she’s unfairly been scapegoated. They contend live rounds arrived on set from an Albuquerque-based supplier of dummy rounds.

Additionally, Gutierrez-Reed is accused in another case of carrying a gun into a bar in downtown Santa Fe in violation of state law. Her attorneys say that charge has been used to try to pressure Gutierrez-Reed into a false confession about the handling of live ammunition on the “Rust” set.

Gutierrez-Reed was responsible for storage, maintenance and handling of firearms and ammunition on set and for training members of the cast who would be handling firearms, according to state workplace safety regulators.

Live rounds are typically distinguished from dummy rounds by a small hole in the dummy’s brass cartridge, indicating there is no explosive inside or by shaking the round to hear the clatter of a BB that is inserted inside. A missing or dimpled primer at the bottom of the cartridge is another trait of dummy rounds.

The company Rust Movie Productions paid a $100,000 fine to the state following a scathing narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols.

Eager paddlers encouraged to wait for warmer water

DES MOINES — The weather is starting to feel like spring, but water temperatures are still dangerously cold.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommends that paddlers wait for consistent warm weather to allow the water temperatures to rise slowly. It could be several weeks before water temperatures are ideal and safe as water and air temperatures continue to change.

“Air temperatures are warmer than normal this year, but the water is still dangerously cold,” said Todd Robertson, Iowa DNR River Programs water trails coordinator. “We have not had enough consistently warm days to raise water temperatures adequately. Cold water shock and hypothermia can set in quickly if you fall into the water at current temperatures.”

Safety Tips for Paddling in Cold Water Conditions

  • Always wear a life jacket. Not only does the life jacket help keep your head above water, it helps to keep your organs warmer.
  • Don’t paddle alone, especially in cold water, use a buddy system. Go with a small group of paddlers and know which paddler has the most experience.
  • Let a friend or loved one know where you are going and when you are expected to return. It will be easier to find you if you need help.
  • Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Plan as if you were to be in the water at some point.  A wetsuit or drysuit is a must. Dress in layers so you can peel a layer off if you get overheated.
  • Bring along a dry bag with extra clothing to change into should you get wet. Get out of wet, cold clothing as soon as possible. Having the right gear and understanding the stages of hypothermia is crucial for remaining safe.
  • Stay away from strainers, wood/branch piles that can pull a paddler under. These are usually found on outside river bends where the current is going and are deadly hazards that must be avoided.


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