As red cedars spread across Kansas, so does risk of unstoppable wildfires

Where It All Began: The Anderson Creek Fire

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)
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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)

When the Anderson Creek fire burned over 370,000 acres of land, some firefighters said that everything conspired against them.

The fire combined intense wind, a super dry climate and a couple years of heavy grass growth into unstoppable walls of flame.

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But many firefighters over 40 said that fire was eerily familiar.

“I thought it was another 1996,” said Roger Robison, one of the fire chiefs in Barber County.

“Almost the same,” agreed Pat McCullough, another county fire chief.

The 1996 fire started within a few miles of the fire in 2016. The fires carved out a nearly identical path, they said, moving due north and covering about 100,000 acres.

The difference between the two fires, Robison and McCullough said, was that in 2016 the wind changed direction without slowing down, creating a fire head more than 30 miles long.

There was one other crucial difference: tens of thousands more red cedar trees.

Barber County before the fire

A spot in Barber County before the fire.

The same location after the fire 

The same location after the fire.

Firefighters described how, despite their best attempts to cut the fire off, the intense heat and flames from the red cedars pitched the fire three-quarters of a mile over roadblocks and beyond the banks of rivers.

Barber County can’t control the winds or the rain, said Ted Alexander, a county rancher, but it can control the red cedars that have provided the most salient new fuel for Kansas’ two most recent, and increasingly large, wildfires.

They were lucky: The wind changed course, turning back on itself, just as the fire was threatening to jump the Medicine Lodge River and engulf the town of Medicine Lodge.

Next time, Alexander said, those 2,000 residents might not be so lucky.

If we don’t take advantage of the situation we have now and learn from it and apply it, then in 20 years the next fire is going to be even bigger and more devastating.

Ted Alexander, a Barber County rancher

“If we don’t take advantage of the situation we have now and learn from it and apply it,” he said, “then in 20 years the next fire is going to be even bigger and more devastating.”

A recap of the wildfires that have been burning since Tuesday, scorching nearly 400,000 acres across Kansas and Oklahoma. Despite the damage in the short-term, the habitat that rises when rains hit burned areas will be favorable for grazing and wi

Explosive growth

Fifty years ago red cedar trees in Kansas were counted in the tens of thousands. Now the estimate is closer to 100 million.

The explosive growth has continued, despite heightened efforts to stop it. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of cedars, sometimes referred to as junipers, on Kansas forestland increased from an estimated 55 million to 85 million trees, according to the Kansas Forest Service’s most recent survey. Between 2007 and 2012, cedars encroached on about 50,000 additional acres.

The forest service calls a plot of land forestland if it is at least 10 percent covered by tree branches. The definition of forestland doesn’t capture the tree growth in places like Barber County, where there aren’t enough cedar trees to meet the forest service’s threshold, but tree inventories clearly show the trees are expanding.

Although south-central Kansas doesn’t have the most cedar trees, it has some of the worst fire conditions. It combines the hot temperatures of southern Kansas with just enough rain to grow significant fire fuel, like eastern Kansas, but with less reliable moisture to keep it wet.

According to Aron Flanders of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who also is a firefighter, even moderate cedar encroachment makes it more likely fires will jump roads and creeks and reach temperatures and smoke levels that make them difficult to fight.

Barber County and other counties along the Kansas-Oklahoma border face increased fire risk because conservative forest service estimates indicate that the number of cedar trees in Oklahoma is four or five times greater than in Kansas. That works out to around 780 acres of Oklahoma land sprouting cedars per day.

Oklahoma and its universities are trying to spur economic interest in using cedar products, ranging from oils and furniture to biomass energy generators. If money could be made, the thought goes, more resources would be put to attack the problem.

The economic blight of cedar trees has gotten so bad in Oklahoma that, in 2015, a state law was proposed to use prison labor to remove them.

The ‘green glacier’

Many Barber County ranchers, instead of being upset by the Anderson Creek fire, said it actually might be good for them.

To understand how it’s possible to celebrate the largest Kansas fire in over a century, you have to listen to them describe an even more vast and intractable enemy.

Ranchers describe the red cedar in apocryphal terms.

They say it’s not just how many of them there are, but it’s the oily, explosive insides, the greedy roots that suck up gallons of water a day and leave streams dry, and the dark shadow its pine limbs cast on the ground, not letting sunlight or water through, leaving a largely deadened area underneath.

One scientist called them collectively “the green glacier,” which slowly crushes everything in its path.

The red cedar wasn’t always so universally derided. At one time, ranchers, scientists and historians say, it was a small part of the Red Hill ecosystem, sparsely populating along the banks of creeks.

It wasn’t that the trees weren’t trying: Their seeds are carried by birds into new areas. It is fertile, they say: There are about two males for every female tree, and if one is cut down, within a couple of years 10 cedars will be standing in its place.

They describe it as resilient: Even when the red cedar is left without water for months and years, its scraggly limbs can survive where many other trees and shrubs would perish.

Before the 19th century, most of the land was burned by fires that Native Americans would ignite in order to make room for fresh grass that would attract buffalo.

Now many ranchers, whose land has been passed down for generations, speak derisively about “the white man” – their European ancestors – who brought with him a fear of fire.

In the absence of fire, they say, the red cedar has gone unchecked. The outlaw trees have sucked streams dry, pushed out native grasses and reduced pastureland by thousands of acres. The trees create hiding towers for hawks to pick off native birds.

The trees worked their way into the good graces of farmers back when wood was scarce and some Kansas fences were built out of limestone. Their grandfathers told their fathers, in no uncertain terms, that they were not to cut down a tree for any reason.

The government actively promoted their expansion as well, especially after the Dust Bowl, extolling the virtue of such hardy trees as windbreaks that would prevent erosion.

The mayor of Medicine Lodge – the town nearly burned up by red cedars a few weeks ago – tried to turn Highway 160 into “Cedar Tree Lane” in the 1940s or 1950s, a point of pride mentioned in his obituary. Several ranchers in their 80s recounted that the main controversy then was not about the introduction of the trees, but about how close they had been planted to their grandparents’ fence lines.

By the mid-1980s it was clear to some ranchers that the trees, which were once a rare commodity, had become a pest and were not going away unless they created their own fires.

Burn plans

Just a couple of weeks before a wall of flames rolled over a third of Barber County at the end of March, Bob Larson and his son, Robert, began preparing to burn a much more modest amount: 600 acres.

They started preparing for the burn months before, cutting miles of grass around the burn area so that when it did burn there would be a margin of short grass to contain it.

The Larsons have to buy insurance for a burn, which can cost around $250, according to one local company, and create a burn plan, with a designated burn leader, so that if there is ever a legal problem, the lawyers and judges will have evidence that they took due diligence.

They have to register their burn with government officials. Some ranchers refuse to burn, in part because they don’t want the government to know what they are doing, according to rancher Ted Alexander, who has led efforts to promote controlled burns in Kansas. In Barber County there are only a couple of people who are certified burn leaders, Alexander said.

Each burn requires at least 10 people – four truck drivers, four people with hoses, plus at least one person setting the fire and one burn captain. That means neighbors require the help of their neighbors, and, in some years, that means the only fires they’ll work on will be in someone else’s pasture.

In addition to the igniting fuel, the burn requires trucks with water and another container nearby with thousands of gallons to reload, plus radios for everyone to communicate.

But the biggest investment, many ranchers say, is their time, since burns can take upwards of 40 hours of work.

Between about March 1 and May 1, the Larsons wait.

The wind has to be just right. If it’s less than 5 miles per hour, the fire won’t move fast enough. If it’s more than 15 miles per hour, local regulations dictate that burning is too big of a risk.

The wind is an extra challenge on their land, which bisects Highway 160. The smoke isn’t allowed on the highway, so they have to wait for one wind to blow north and another to blow south.

The humidity has to be just right, too. If it’s less than 15 percent, the dryness poses a risk of fire escape.

About two weeks of weather each year are right for them to burn, they said.

And then, for all their effort, people in town may complain about the smoke, and environmental regulators in cities and even other states may complain.

The high cost and degree of difficulty means that many thousands of acres in Barber County never get burned, allowing the cedars to prosper.

But ranchers in the Flint Hills, in the eastern third of the state, burn nearly 2.5 million of their 5 million acres of pasture every year, according to Walter Fick, a professor at Kansas State University who studies range management.

Many of the ranchers and firefighters in Barber County say there isn’t the culture of prescribed burns there that there has been in the Flint Hills.

But there are other differences.

Red Hills vs. Flint Hills

The climate and economy has made prescribed burning both more expensive and less desirable in the Red Hills.

Because rain is more frequent in the Flint Hills, the grass grows taller. Many cattle operations will try to make big money fattening up calves that have already been weaned from their mothers.

The grass that grows after a burn is fresh and more nutritious than the old, stalky grass. So a young cow can put on an extra 30 or 40 pounds a year foraging on that, said Fick, the professor at Kansas State. Many Flint Hills ranchers will burn every year.

In the Red Hills, most of the ranches raise mothers and calves and then ship them off somewhere else to fatten up. The young calves survive mostly on milk and don’t see the kinds of weight gains that they do after they’re weaned. So there is less incentive for these ranchers to create that hyper-nutritious grass from burns, according to Fick.

If the humidity reaches 40 percent in the Red Hills, the fire won’t burn hot enough to kill the small cedar trees, which are the primary reason for burning in Barber County. In the Flint Hills, in contrast, there are more days they can burn, because they are just trying to burn the grass, so they can tolerate higher humidity levels.

Fire can keep trees from growing but it can’t get rid of many of the large trees already there. So most ranchers have to pay between $60 and $400 an acre to cut them down, depending on how infested the area is.

Cutting down the 270,00 acres of Barber County that burned in March would have cost an estimated $50 million. Ranchers would have had to pay another $50 million to burn the ground afterward to keep the trees from returning, according to Flanders of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Many ranches in Kansas produce only 50 cattle per year, according to Fick, so their owners rely on other sources of income. So even if they do want to be good stewards of the land, they may not have the time or expertise.

We also know that when you light a fire, there are consequences. Even the best managed controlled burns can get away.

Melvin Thompson, who manages land in Barber County

“My fear of starting a fire like we have just experienced has kept me from being a good steward and eliminating those cedar trees, because really fire is the best way to reduce cedar populations,” said Melvin Thompson, the agricultural representative for Sen. Pat Roberts, who is based in Wichita but manages land for his family in Barber County. “We also know that when you light a fire, there are consequences. Even the best managed controlled burns can get away.”

The refusal of some ranchers to do burns makes some ranchers angry. Thompson “inherited that place out there and don’t give a (darn) about it,” said Jerry Magnuson, who owns some land adjacent to Thompson. “He doesn’t make a living out of it.”

'We do have forest in Kansas'

Kansas is one of the only states in the country that is not allowed to share firefighting resources with other states. The Kansas Forest Service supported legislation in January 2015 that would make sharing resources possible.

But on the day the bill was supposed to receive a hearing, it snowed. In part because the Legislature was so focused on the state’s budget problems, according to Larry Biles, director of the Kansas Forest Service, the bill has not been brought up since.

Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison was in southwest Kansas covering the wildfires that has burned nearly 400,000 acres.

Many Kansans don’t realize the state has forestland.

Times have changed and we have cedar trees that are just like forests, so yes we do have forest in Kansas.

Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington

“To be honest (the bill) says ‘forest fires’ and I’ve never thought about Kansas having forests,” said Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington, chairman of the committee where the bill was proposed. “But times have changed and we have cedar trees that are just like forests, so yes we do have forest in Kansas.”

The Kansas Forest Service has a budget of around $3 million. But only about 10 percent, or $310,000, has come from the state of Kansas, according to Biles.

He has been asking the state to provide at least $1 million in matching funds. Instead, he said, as the biggest fire in state history was raging in March, he was required to send back more than $15,000 as part of statewide budget cuts.

The small budget means the Kansas Forest Service has only been able to hire four staffers whose primary responsibility is fire, and only one of those is specifically tasked with direct fire prevention.

This fire season has been so intense, they haven’t yet been able to step back and reassess the heightened risks suggested by the red cedar trees and the historic Anderson Creek fire, according to Jason Hartman, who has been trying to promote prescribed burns in his role at the forest service.

“It’s such a small staff and budget,” Hartman said, “we just haven’t been able to keep up.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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