Dry conditions ripe for more fires

By Mark Minton
Garden City Telegram – February 28, 2017

Photo by James M. Dobson. Click on photo for full-size image.

Photo by James M. Dobson. Click on photo for full-size image.

A string of fires in southwest Kansas last Thursday put the spotlight on abnormally warm, spring-like weather, which has firefighters working a little earlier this year to extinguish wildfires.

There were three large wildfires Thursday in Finney, Haskell and Gray counties. The fire in Finney County took local fire departments four hours to suppress and covered 4,000 acres of Red Cedar, buffalo grass and sagebrush with wind speeds reaching up to 60 mph. Gray County saw two fires last week, one on Thursday that covered 749 acres and took four hours to suppress, and a fire similar in scope that occurred on Feb. 19. Haskell County’s Thursday fire burned 350 acres and took about two hours to contain.

Although there were no injuries and no large monetary losses for landowners affected by the wildfires, this collection of incidents may be a precursor to something worse.

The Holcomb Fire Department on Thursday posted an infographic showing an “extreme” risk factor for Morton, Stevens, Seward, Meade and Clark counties, and a comment by the page’s admin said “not even an old timer could remember seeing the color purple used on a fire weather map,” which is used to indicate extreme risk.

“Right now we’re experiencing some weather conditions which are making fire conditions very hazardous at this time, and it’s extreme danger,” said Garden City Fire Chief Allen Shelton, who admonished area residents to avoid any open burning until the fire department can verify the safety of the weather conditions.

Rainfall scarce

Marc Russell, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Dodge City, said there is no significant precipitation expected for the next week, which would have potentially mitigated the current hazardous lack of moisture.

“We do have a little chance for something Tuesday night, but it’s not going to be really anything other than maybe some showers,” Russell said. “It’s not going to be heavy enough to really moisten up the area.”

Monday evening, the NWS had issued Red Flag warnings for Seward, Stevens, Morton, Grant, Stanton and Hamilton counties. Russell said Red Flag warnings are issued when the climate becomes dry enough to facilitate an “easily prolific” wildfire under wind conditions at 20 mph or above.

“We’ve been pretty warm and it doesn’t take much to get 20 mph winds here on the high plains, so that’s almost a given in the afternoons,” Russell said, adding that temperatures heading into March are “abnormal” and more akin to April weather.

Rex Beemer, rural fire coordinator in Gray County, said he fears the possibility of another fire like the March 2016 Anderson Creek fire that scorched south-central Kansas and burned nearly 400,00 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma. Although no human fatalities were reported in that fire, WildfireToday.com noted that 600 cattle were killed, 16 homes and 15 structures were lost, and countless miles of fencing were destroyed.

Beemer said years of Kansas drought followed by an increase in moisture and precipitation in the last couple of years have resulted in grasses that have grown six or seven feet tall — effectively homegrown gasoline.

“That’s something that we’re really not used to out here in western Kansas is this fuel load, because we’re usually pretty dry,” Beemer said. “We just got through with a four-year drought, and now we have been exceptionally wet the last couple of years, so everything is grown. Well, now we’re back in a dry spell again and without any moisture in the ground these fuels are basically gasoline.”

Fast moving fire

The Thursday fire in Finney County was originally paged as a grass fire, but in width alone it spanned 10,000 acres and Shelton said it was seven-and-a-half miles in length. The cause of the fire remains undetermined, but the results are more concrete.

Holcomb Fire Chief Bill Knight said any seeds that had been sewn in those 4,000 acres are gone and that the scorched earth will remain barren for as many as four years. Although the fire did not reach any structures, Knight said that if there had been a structure in the fire’s path “it would have been pretty tough to save it at the height of the fire when it was moving as fast as it was.”

“It was one of the fastest moving fires I’ve ever seen,” Knight said. “We fought larger fires or assisted fighting larger fires in Haskell County, Seward County, where it burned up to 80 square miles, but here in Finney County it’s one of the larger ones for quite awhile.”

Knight said that although many people do not take grassfires seriously, more firefighters in Kansas are killed every year fighting grassfires and wild land fires than they are fighting structure fires.

“Cardiac arrest far and above is the number one cause of death for any firefighter,” Knight said. “Generally grass fires — you’re more remote in location, you’re out away from hospitals and ambulances. The number one thing is generally the stress of the heat and the length of time that you’re out there doing it.”

Knight added that grassfires typically take longer to extinguish than structure fires.

“Most of our calls are done in an hour, an hour-and-a-half, tops. Whereas a large grassfire like this can keep us tied up for hours upon hours and sometimes days,” he said.

Haskell County Fire Chief Rusty Sherwood said the Thursday fire in Haskell County was the biggest they’ve had this year He also emphasized the influence of previous plant growth and the consequences of that growth drying out in the winter months.

“What grew last summer in all those rains is now completely brittle dry, and we’re sitting on a pretty extreme fire hazard for the rest of spring until we start getting moisture and getting things to green up,” he said.

Residents urged to avoid fires

Sherwood noted that March is usually the windiest month in Haskell County, and with the increased risk of more dangerous wildfires to come, he asked that area residents who are curious about any fires they may witness stay out of the way.

“When we’ve got that much equipment trying to get to the fires, we come across a lot of sightseers that tend to get in our way, and that’s just something that people just need to be aware of that we don’t need those headaches,” he said.

And for residents seeking safety, Knight suggested referencing the USDA and United States Fire Administration’s online resources for tips.

He added that simply keeping grass and weeds trimmed short around valued structures could save them, and suggested an 18- to 20-feet-wide break around pivotal structures to slow the fire’s advance.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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