Kansas could see its worst year for wildfires yet

A grass fire ignites cedar trees and brush next to a road southwest of Medicine Lodge in March 2016.
A grass fire ignites cedar trees and brush next to a road southwest of Medicine Lodge in March 2016. File photo

A rancher show the devastation wrought by the massive 2016 wildfire. Hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched in south-central Kansas. (by Oliver Morrison)

Eleven months ago the Anderson Creek Wildlife burned its way across 390,000 acres of Oklahoma and Kansas, killing hundreds of cattle, destroying millions of dollars worth of buildings and fences, and endangering the lives of hundreds of residents and volunteer firefighters.

It was the biggest known wildfire in Kansas.

This year could be worse.

“I’ll be honest, this year just scares me, what we have out there right now,” said Jim Unruh, a volunteer fire department chief based out of Marquette, who fought the Anderson Creek fire.

I’ll be honest, this year just scares me, what we have out there right now.

Jim Unruh, chief of Marquette’s volunteer fire department

“It’s really, really getting dry out there, but holy cow, there’s so much fuel out there on some of these pastures it’s just unbelievable. If we get the wrong wind, we could have some big problems.”

Problems have already started in many parts of Kansas.

Unruh’s crew battled a wildfire of 3,600 acres last month.

Eric Ward, a Kansas Forest Service fire specialist, said the state had three large wildfires in January. A large wildfire burns 100 or more acres of trees or 300 or more acres of brush or grass. The office has tracked wildfires in Kansas since 2005.

“Up until this year, we had a total of four large fires in the month of January during all that time,” said Ward. “Then this (January), we get three. That’s certainly unusual.

“I think every indication is we are setting ourselves up for a fire season that could be more dangerous and active than most seasons. Since Christmas I’ve seen accounts of fires almost daily. That is very much not normal. We’re not at a crisis point, but right now the conditions are there.”

40 to 50 mph winds stirred up dust and smoke from Oklahoma fires Tuesday afternoon in Barber County, Kansas. Bare soil left from the Anderson Creek fire two weeks ago is being stripped off by the high winds. (Bo Rader, Kansas.com)

According to Ward, those conditions include plentiful rains and heavy grass growth the past two summers, and another unusually dry fall and winter.

Ample fuel supply

After several years of drought, most of the state was blessed with consecutive summers of good to great rains in 2015 and last year. That’s great news for those trying to feed cattle. It’s bad news for those having to fight wildfires.

“We had big grass last year, and we had big fires, up to 18 miles long,” said Randy Hoffman, a Cowley County rural fire district fire chief. “We have big grass this year, too.”

Heavy grass growth poses two different fire threats. Tall grass burns fast and hot. Grass that is compacted on the ground smolders for long periods and can reignite the fires. This year there is both.

Like Hoffman and Unruh, Ward said he’s heard reports of exceptionally tall grass on the Kansas prairies.

Unruh said pastures in the Smoky Hills, around Marquette, are “waist high for many miles.” The fact that it’s still standing tall presents a problem for firefighters.

Most years, winter snow compresses the grass close to the ground by spring, Ward said. Grass that’s low to the ground doesn’t burn as hot or as fast.

“You still have the same amount of fuel, but when it’s vertical it burns hotter and faster,” Ward said. “You also have much more of a problem with burning debris blowing in the wind and scattering the fire.”

Burning debris, from grass or eastern red cedar trees, helped the Anderson Creek fire jump a half-mile at a time, and cross streams and highways.

Grass that grew two summers ago is now turning into thatch.

Hoffman referred to that low vegetation as a “carpet of fire” that is left burning long after the vertical fuel is consumed. Hoffman said the carpets of fire take more time and water to battle. Unruh agreed.

“You go over it, and you think you have it out. Then you move on, look back and it’s flaring up again behind you,” he said. “It’s burning underneath and you can’t always see it. It’s like you never get it put out, and you’re really wanting to move on.”

Dry conditions

Dense prairie thatch normally helps firefighters by holding moisture, which greatly reduces the risk and damage of wildfires. Unfortunately, moisture, in the form or rain or snow, has been in short supply.

Our maps show that southwest Kansas is in severe drought.

Christopher Redmond of Kansas Mesonet

“Our maps show that southwest Kansas is in severe drought and the rest of the state is rated as moderate drought or abnormally dry,” said Christopher Redmond, of Kansas Mesonet, a statewide weather station network run by Kansas State University. “Our weather pattern is supposed to be shifting to cooler temperatures the beginning of March, but that’s cooler as in back to seasonal temperatures. But from what I’m seeing for (the next few weeks) the precipitation outlook is pretty slim.”

Conditions also are not good in most of Oklahoma, and parts of Texas, New Mexico and Kansas. Firefighters in parts of all four states were put on alert during Thursday’s high winds. Oklahoma has issued burn bans in several counties.

Redmond said the long-term Kansas outlook for spring is for temperatures to be above normal. Rainfall predictions are tougher. Most predictions he’s seen show about a 50/50 chance of average rainfall. It’s harder to predict humidity, which can quickly alter a fire’s potential.

Even harder to predict, Redmond said, is the wind.

Veterans of the Anderson Creek Wildfire say steady winds blowing at 40 miles per hour, and sometimes gusting higher, made the fire difficult to control. The wind shift of nearly 90 degrees also added to the danger and difficulty.

Unruh, who runs the Marquette department in McPherson County, already has had one taste of what strong wind can do in this year’s dry conditions. In early January several volunteer units, including his, battled the 3,600-acre fire that began from the ashes of a brush pile that had been intentionally burned several days before.

With a heavy south wind, the fire traveled 3.6 miles in 30 minutes.

We had enough wind and enough fuel, it was like the fire was just running across the pasture.

Jim Unruh, chief of Marquette’s volunteer fire department

“We had enough wind and enough fuel, it was like the fire was just running across the pasture,” Unruh said. “We could have some big fires this year if one gets started in the wrong place. If we’d get something started about four miles south of Marquette, it could go all the way to up by I-70 in a heck of a hurry. That’s about 30 miles. It’s amazing how tall all the grass is out there. If there’s a fire (with the wrong wind direction) we’re really going to be in trouble.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors