Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh is having an unwelcome case of deja vu this winter. "This is starting to look like that winter we had a few years ago," when grass fires riddled the county, he said.
Numbers back him up: Through early December, this winter is second to only 2006 in the number of grass fires in the county during the past decade.
As of Dec. 6, there had been 41 grass fires in Sedgwick County since Sept. 1. The only year in the past decade with more is 2006, which had 57 during the same period.
All or part of 22 Kansas counties are in the middle of a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of the rest of the western half of Kansas is considered abnormally dry.
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It's so dry in Ness County that nearly two-thirds of the 2011 wheat crop hasn't emerged, simply waiting for enough moisture for seeds to sprout.
Farmers in western Kansas say conditions today are the worst they've been since 2006. With the dry ground and a lack of cover in fields planted to wheat, there's an increased danger of blowing soil.
Conditions are also primed for more fires, authorities say. Wichita faces a high risk for grass fires Saturday and Sunday.
"A small grass fire becomes a big grass fire in just a matter of minutes," Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
Forecasters predicted a Wichita winter that would be warmer and a bit dryer than normal.
"So far... that's what's happened," Millspaugh said.
Autumn was dry as well, allowing vegetation to dry out more quickly than usual, Crisp said. Winds have been consistently blustery, too.
"That's just a recipe for disaster," Crisp said.
Wichita has yet to have a measurable snow this winter, and one doesn't appear likely in the near future, said Stephanie Dunten, the fire weather meteorologist for the local branch of the National Weather Service.
"We're going to stay dry," Dunten said.
While there's a chance for rain and snow in the area Friday night and Saturday, she said, it's not going to be enough to ease the fire concerns.
The city of Wichita is already under a burn ban . Sedgwick County is not, though Millspaugh said officials are monitoring conditions closely.
"We're not in dire straits," he said.
But if things don't change before too long, he said, "I just got a feeling we're heading that way."
Low temperatures are helping keep the fire threat at bay, Millspaugh said. When temperatures are in the 20s and 30s, he said, they inhibit both the start and spread of fires.
"The air just consumes that heat coming off the fire, (so) that it doesn't spread that fast," he said.
The heat disperses in the cold air, rather than warming up nearby combustible materials to their ignition point, he said.