Brownback warns against outdoor fires

Gov. Sam Brownback warned Kansas residents Friday against lighting outdoor fires because of the state’s severe drought, but he said he’s not yet ready to impose a statewide ban on burning.

Brownback acknowledged that officials are considering a statewide ban but said he prefers to leave such decisions to local communities.

The governor met with state and local officials for more than an hour to discuss the effects of the drought and how the state can respond. He learned that a new state program to help farmers and ranchers get water for livestock has been inundated with requests for aid that are nine times greater than the amount of money available.

All 105 Kansas counties are now covered by a disaster declaration, and 67 have imposed burning bans. State officials believe that even if the state gets a normal amount of rain this fall, it could need several years to recover from dry conditions that began in 2010 in some areas.

“Basically, don’t light an outdoor fire in Kansas now – just don’t do it,” Brownback said. “This is a powder-keg situation.”

The meeting was held on the same day Brownback’s administration announced a new website to provide residents with information about the drought.

The possibility of a statewide ban on burning arose during the meeting. Rod Voorhees of Fredonia, chairman of the State Conservation Commission, said his recent experience with a local grass fire and the panic it caused led him to contemplate whether a statewide ban should be imposed.

“The conditions are extreme,” he said.

Other officials talked about other fire dangers, including lightning strikes or metal blades on farm equipment hitting rocks and creating sparks.

After the meeting, Brownback said that he still prefers to have local communities handle bans on burning because they are best able to assess when restrictions are warranted.

The governor also received an update from Voorhees on a program the state launched two weeks ago to help farmers and ranchers pay for water projects, mostly in pastures that have little or no water. The Conservation Commission voted to set aside $500,000 in existing funds, with each land owner eligible to receive up to $4,000.

Since then, farmers and ranchers have filed almost 1,800 requests for funds totaling nearly $4.5 million. State Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman said he thinks his department can “scrounge around” to find an additional $1.5 million.

“I feared that this would be a Band-Aid, and it kind of turned out that it is,” Voorhees said.

Officials also told Brownback that livestock producers face a shortage of forage and that what’s available has grown increasingly expensive. Responding to a suggestion, the governor said he would look into harvesting prairie grass along state highways to help.

And, Brownback said, he’ll look at doing the same on the grounds at Cedar Crest, the governor’s official residence. Normally, any hay baled there is sold on contract to a local farmer, with the money used to maintain the grounds.

“It’s a symbolic gesture, as a way of trying to say, ‘Are there other state resources that we have?’ ” Brownback said.

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