Weather

More extreme weather could mean more, bigger wildfires, scientists say

Flames consume the prairie north of Protection as a wildfire, swept by winds of up to 50 mph, burned hundreds of thousands of acres across southern and central Kansas.
Flames consume the prairie north of Protection as a wildfire, swept by winds of up to 50 mph, burned hundreds of thousands of acres across southern and central Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

Many scientists believe there will be increasingly more days with weather that puts the state at risk of wildfires.

Although scientists can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change, the extreme weather the past two years in Kansas is consistent with climate change models, according to Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Canada.

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“The warmer it gets, the more fire you have,” Flannigan said.

Farmers and ranchers in Kansas are already dealing with some of the effects of the air warming, according to Chuck Rice, a professor of agriculture at Kansas State University. The last frost of winter arrives on average 10 days sooner than it did 100 years ago, Rice said, and the warming is affecting the moisture levels in the soil.

“We’ve had extremely warm temperatures in January and February, combined with low precipitation, and you have more evaporation with the warmer temperatures, so that leaves conditions extremely dry,” Rice said. “One year or two years doesn’t point to the fact that it’s climate change, but it’s all consistent with what the projections are.”

Kansas has wildfires every year, although they are typically small and contained. But extreme weather can make those fires difficult to contain.

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“Fire management is really good when they get to the fire when it starts, they can put it out easily,” Flannigan said. “Once it gets to football field size, when it’s hot, dry and windy, you have a problem. The bigger it gets, the more intense it is, the harder it is to put it out.”

As the temperature increases, the air soaks up more of the moisture from plants, Flannigan said. The humidity was in the single digits during the major fire outbreaks in Kansas earlier this month. In these conditions, more than a dozen fires ignited all over Kansas.

The rain will be less consistent, as well, leading to both more droughts and more flooding, Flannigan said. Changes in weather patterns mean that weather systems are staying in place longer, so periods of intense rain and drought are increasing.

While the average wind speed won’t increase, Flannigan said his climate model projects that the top wind speeds during extreme events will increase. And because 99 percent of the land burned in the western U.S. occurs during 1 percent of the fires, he said, extreme wind speeds are often more important for predicting how large a fire becomes than average wind speed.

The faster winds not only push the flames higher and blow the embers farther, they also dry out the land more quickly.

“Some of the projections are, particularly for southwest Kansas, we’re going to see more of these extreme events,” Rice said. “We’re going to see more frequent droughts and potentially those droughts will be more intense. If those projections are true, we could see more of these wildfires.”

A new firefighting plan

In the months ahead, the state will conduct an “after action” report, which will look critically at what lessons can be learned from the March 6 fire that burned more than 700,000 acres and destroyed millions of dollars of property.

One of the main drivers of whether Kansas would consider spending more money on fighting fires will be the assumptions the state makes about how likely it is to face more massive wildfires, according to Larry Biles, the director of the Kansas Forest Service.

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Many states in the South don’t buy snow plows even though they will occasionally have bad snowstorm, Biles said.

“So do you prepare yourself for the bad snow, with equipment you might use every 10 or 15 or 20 years?” Biles said. “Based on what I’ve been told, these were the biggest fire years in recorded history. Will we have it again next year, a three-peat? I don’t know. But do you gear up for something that comes along once a century?”

Biles said he hasn’t had any conversations about the impact of climate change but has heard from other state foresters through informal conversations that their fire season is getting longer.

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He said it wouldn’t surprise him if the state had more large wildfires over time.

“In my view, we’ve had the perfect storm for fires the past two years,” he said. “Tremendously heavy fuel loads. We’ve got the right climatic conditions, strong winds, low humidity and topping all that is a drought situation.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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