With warm weather comes wildfires–are you ready?

By Ross Hauck, Fire Management Coordinator
Kansas Forest Service
Published in KSFFA Firewire – April/May 2014 Edition

It’s March 3; the temperature when I came to the office this morning was a balmy minus two degrees with a couple of inches of snow. Within a couple more days it will be in the 50s. Welcome to Kansas, Toto. This has really been a winter for the record books, from unusually warm to extreme cold. But what has been consistent is the lack of moisture and many days of strong, drying winds. Even with all the snow we received in eastern Kansas, it was cold and the snow didn’t hold much moisture, which if we don’t see this trend reverse could lead to a dry spring and some very significant fire danger.

If one looks at the NOAA Seasonal Drought Outlook the east half of the state looks to be unchanged until May, in that there is “no drought posted or predicted.” There may be some improvement along the I-135/US-81 corridor while NOAA thinks the drought will remain but improve from there to the west. The exception will be the southwest corner, roughly from Meade County diagonally across to Hamilton County which will remain in an extreme, extended drought.

So, while it is cold and we see some snow cover, a few days, to a week of warm “spring-like” days and wildfire suppression will be a headache to say the least. Don’t be complacent in your preparations. It will still be mud under foot and so slick  that one won’t be able to drive an engine across the “black”. This in itself makes it challenging to fight a wind driven fire safely.

As you remember, we always trained to keep “one foot in the black” at all times, which is our safety zone. If the situation requires it, we step from the “green” to the “black” and into the safety zone. It becomes problematic when trying to move from the hard surface road to the “black” while going through the fuel and putting others and ourselves at risk.

What is the answer? I don’t think in the amount of space I have for this article, I could address all the options for all the fires that might occur, other than to be mindful that if we are going to cross the “green,” dependable escape routes must be determined before we start. Looking for escape routes on the fly is not the place or the time to be making a decision about how we’ll all get to a safety zone.

I do think we all too often get tunnel vision, focusing on putting the wet stuff on the red stuff without considering the consequences of our actions. The first decision in our “Go, No Go” decision process should be, am I taking action based on safe practices for myself and those with whom I am working? If the answer is “no” or even “maybe not,” you better rethink your strategy. If you come up with a “No Go,” there is a real possibility that something bad will happen before that incident is over. It may be noteworthy that tragedies are usually not the result of one big mistake, but the columniation of several small judgmental errors.

This might be time to inject the idea that there is more than one way to fight a wildfire. We don’t always have to go direct with our suppression. This may well be the situation where we use the indirect approach and go to the first natural or man-made firebreak, light a back fire and let the fire come to us. Yes, there are several considerations that come to play; are there structures threatened, is there infrastructure at risk, is there the possibility that someone will be injured, is our barrier secure enough to hold a backfire and do we have enough resources on the ground to be adding more fire? All these questions and more should be answered before any action is taken. I go back to that old adage, “take a deep breath, clear your head and think rationally.”

Early spring wildfire unlike late spring fires tends to be easier to control for several reasons. The humidity is often higher, the difference between the ignition temperature of the fuel and the ambient air temperature is greater in early spring and while the “dry fuel moisture” content may be reasonable consistent throughout spring, early spring fire can be less “aggressive” than late season fires. As we get later in the spring, we have more days with winds at or above 15 miles per hour. Some food for thought; one foot tall grass, on a 90 degree day with 40 percent Rh and a five mile per hour breeze spreads at about one mph, that same grass at the same temperature and Rh with a 17 mph wind will have a 14 mph spread rate. So, remember the wind and how much it plays into your decision making process. Everyone checks with the dispatcher to get the current wind velocity, right! You should be.

Another justification for the indirect attack is what the future holds for that specific piece of the landscape. If it will be lit next month as a controlled burn, the best decision may be to protect the exposures and wait it out. I am not advocating one drop a match on a windy day and call it in as a wildfire so the fire department will come to our rescue, for those that can be controlled and determined to be “a benefit use fire,” controlling, confining and monitoring it is a good option. This may require more time on scene, but it will be less tiring, safer and causes less wear on both man and machine. Remember, if there are any pockets of heavy fuels within the perimeter of a wildfire, they need to be watched until they are completely cool. A big log can have hot embers hidden for five to seven days and we know that rekindles are a frequently recognized cause of a second or third start, and most embarrassing.

So, as we get prepared for the spring wildfire and controlled burning season, remember LCES-Lookout, Communication, Escape route and Safety zone and fight fire aggressively while providing for safety first.

‘Til next time, from the corner office.

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster