Drought places Kansas on fire danger alert

10/05/2011 12:00 AM

10/05/2011 6:25 AM

Much of Kansas — including the Wichita area — will resemble a tinder box for the next couple of days, with conditions combining to make any open fire dangerous, officials say.

Red flag warnings have been posted for the western two-thirds of Kansas, and forecasters say conditions suggest the warnings will be issued again for Thursday.

The National Weather Service cautions that low humidity, dry vegetation, warm temperatures and gusty south winds will combine to create "explosive fire growth potential."

"If you get something started, it's going to go" fast, said Jerilyn Billings, a meteorologist with the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

Sedgwick County Deputy Fire Marshal Clint Reed said fire crews are monitoring conditions closely.

"It is a big concern for us" because there is plenty of grassland in the county, Reed said. "It is dry. It's been an unusually hot and dry summer, so it killed most of the grass out there."

The county has not issued a burn ban yet, he said.

"The (fire) calls haven't really warranted it," Reed said.

The Wichita Fire Department went to Level Two responses on grass fires Tuesday — meaning an extra fire truck was sent out — but Shift Commander Brad Boyd said only one grass fire had been reported in the city as of late Tuesday afternoon.

The front and back yards of a house in the 1200 block of North Prescott in northwest Wichita caught fire, Boyd said, but firefighters were able to extinguish it quickly.

"That may not sound like much," Boyd said, but a similar yard fire in similar conditions four years ago spread so quickly that by the time it was extinguished, four houses in north Wichita burned.

Today marks the 17th straight day without rain for Wichita, which is more than 10 inches below normal through early October. Wichita has recorded 17.22 inches of rain so far this year, but less than an inch in September.

The drought is even more severe in western Kansas, where Dodge City is on pace for its driest year since records began being kept in 1874.

Little more than 5 inches of rain has fallen in the city so far this year, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the weather service. That's more than 13 inches below normal.

There's some hopeful news on the horizon, however.

Showers and thunderstorms are expected to move into the state on Friday. Dodge City could receive two inches of rain or more, Ruthi said.

"I don't think we'd have any flooding problems" if that happens, he said. "The ground will just soak it right up."

Wichita also could see rain this weekend, but forecasters say it is not clear yet when or how much it will be.

"It's one of the better chances we've had in a while," Billings said. "At least parts of Kansas definitely look to get some rain — especially those more parched areas of western Kansas."

Even if Dodge City receives three inches of rain later this week, it would still have the lowest rainfall total through the first week of October since records began being kept 137 years ago.

Long-range forecast models indicate the weather in Kansas will be dryer and warmer than normal for the next three months.

"It's kind of an early start to the fire season," said Brad Ketcham, a meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the weather service. "That starts to happen, normally, in the late fall. But because we're so dry ... it's going to come a little early this year."

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