Grass fires take toll on departments

By Mary Ann Redeker
Emporia Gazette – April 15, 2015

Photo by Jakub Stepanovic.

Photo by Jakub Stepanovic.

Editor’s Note: This story is part one in a two-part series focusing on grass fires in the Flint Hills area. Part two, which will focus on mutual aid, costs and hazards of the job, will run in tomorrow’s edition of The Gazette.

With the arrival of springtime in Kansas comes the smell of smoke throughout the Flint Hills and surrounding areas.

Burning pastures in the spring is a practice which is generally followed in eastern Kansas and particularly applies to the Bluestem or Flint Hills region, which occupies about three million acres of pasture land extending north and south across Kansas in the western and eastern third of the state.

Pastures are burned to remove dead grass remaining from the previous year’s grazing and promote earlier new growth in the spring. Those who burn also claim that the practice is effective in controlling weeds.

“As you can tell the smell of pasture burning is in the area,” said Emporia Fire Chief Jack Taylor. “The reality is that the ranchers around here do an excellent job. They know what they are doing, and they are prepared for it. For the most part, even with the large-scale burning they do, it doesn’t present a problem.”

The Office of the State Fire Marshal provides tips and resources for helping farmers and ranchers to have safe and successful prescribed burns of their fields and pastures.

“By following these proven steps for safely burning fields or brush, Kansans will not be as likely to produce fires that burn out of control and put lives and property at risk,” said State Fire Marshall Doug Jorgensen.

Kansas experienced a significant increase in acres burned between 2013 and 2014. Total acres burned rose from 22,482 in 2013 to 184,716 in 2014 – more than eight times as many field burns in just one year. Numbers for acres burned locally were not available.

The OSFM and Kansas Interagency Wildlife Council offer the following tips and best practices to help ensure a burn doesn’t become a wildfire:

Know all state and local fire restrictions. Check with city and county officials who know whether burning is permissible based on local conditions.

Notify neighbors as a courtesy prior to burning.

Postpone a burn if unsure of fuel and weather conditions.

Have adequate resources available to prevent escaped fires.

Consider smoke management to avoid unsafe roads and air quality conditions.

Do not burn to the ends of the fields. Setting boundaries, “back burning” and keeping fire off fence rows will prevent out-of-control burns.

As Kansas weather changes, burning can become a problem with dry conditions and low humidity, and it doesn’t take long before a controlled burn can become uncontrolled.

Taylor said the department has responded to 29 grass fires reported from January 1 through April 6, 2015, for Lyon County Fire District 4, which covers central Emporia. The department has provided mutual aid to other departments 15 times and has received mutual aid three times.

“Everything this year is slightly less than the same time last year,” he said. “We can compare that to last year, same time frame, we had responded to 41 grass fires, provided mutual aid 22 times and received mutual aid 14 times.”

Chief Bob Miller of the Olpe Fire Department said it has been a busy year for grass fire reports.

“I know in the past few weeks, from March 15 through April 1, we responded to 22 grass fires,” he said. “That was not counting mutual aid. We are comparable to last year. It was a dry winter and conditions overall have been very dry. That has made things much harder. It’s starting to look like it may be slowing down a little though finally.”

Reading Fire Chief Scott Wilkerson said it has been a busy time for his department and volunteers.

“We were very busy last year,” he said. “This year has been pretty comparable to last year. It’s been really dry and that has been a factor. We try to work with the farmers and ranchers in our area to be proactive and will help them with their prescribed burn, should they ask for help.”

Taylor said several factors can present problems during the spring burning season.

“There are two things that we really run into,” he said. “Those things are if the conditions are really great one day for burning and then the next day the wind shifts in a different direction, those hot embers that are remaining can get in an area that was not intended, so that presents us with a problem. The other is with the smaller areas that get burned by those just moving into the county or those who are less experienced and really don’t have the equipment like the larger ranchers do. We get situations where people are burning in barrels and embers get away and maybe some controlled burning that they really don’t have the resources for or experience for, gets away from them. Those are probably the two biggest things that we run into that cause us to have to respond and take care of.”

Miller agreed with Taylor that a previous day’s burning and weather conditions play an important role in fire prevention.

“Things we see that create problems are maybe someone has burned the previous day and they think it’s out,” he said. “Then the next day, the wind turns around and changes directions and there may still be embers that ignite, and then we’re in trouble. That’s one of our biggest issues, having to go back. I suggest farmers and ranchers be aware of the weather and always look at the forecast, even two to three days prior to the burn.”

Burning Regulations

The regulation for open burning in the city and in Lyon County are different. Depending on which of those jurisdictions one lives in, Taylor said residents need to check for the regulations.

“We ask the public to call and talk to us and we’ll go over the regulations for the city with them and advise them whether it’s a day where burning is allowed,” Taylor said. “Within the city limits we restrict between sun up and sun down. If the winds are above 15 miles per hour, we don’t allow burning, and you have to have a garden hose nearby, you have to be so many feet away from a structure. The county doesn’t have those same restrictions, so we go over those restrictions with people each time they call in. We ask people to please call in every time they are going to burn within the city limits.

“There are certain fines that could be given by the courts if someone were burning illegally and they were cited for it. The other cost that could be incurred is if property damage occurred on your neighbor’s property by a fire you started on yours. There could be insurance … there could be civil action. As far as the fire department charging to recover costs, we have never done that.”

For Lyon county, an open burning permit is a two-year permit that individuals are required to obtain when they want to conduct an open burn and are not restricted as to when they can burn. There is no charge for the burn permit. Those wanting to conduct the burn are asked to contact the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center before and after the burn.

The Lyon County Board of County Commission may impose a county-wide burn ban when the lack of moisture or fire hazard conditions are such that they could cause the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury or loss of life or property. The ban is a resolution limiting open burning within a county by the Board County Commission. A burn ban prohibits the building, maintaining, attending or using any open fire or campfire except in permanent stoves, fireplaces or barbecue grills in developed recreational sites or residential lawns when there is an imminent threat that could be caused by fire.

“It’s extremely dry right now, so be very, very careful,” Taylor said. “We don’t want people to lose property, sustain injuries or have lives lost. We advise extreme caution because it is extremely dry out there.”

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