The six largest fires in Kansas history came within the past 21 years

By Michael Stavola
Hutchinson News – July 17, 2017

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Mother Nature has started to heal the charred swath of land visible from space.

It’s been more than 100 days since the Starbuck fire began March 6 and burned 662,687 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma according to Mark Goeller, chief with the fire management and field operations division of the Oklahoma Forestry Service.

The 460,000-plus acres in Kansas makes the Starbuck fire the largest in Kansas history.

It only took a year to break the previous Kansas record set during the Anderson Creek fire, which started on March 22, 2016, and burned 367,619 acres — 278,672 in Kansas.

Starbuck started in Beaver County, Oklahoma, and occurred when strong winds knocked down a power line, Goeller said, then continued on through the Kansas counties of Meade, Clark and Comanche.

Goeller said the spark for the Anderson Creek fire is attributed to a vehicle and started in Woods County, Oklahoma. The fire continued northeast through Barber and Comanche counties.

Since 1965, when fire records first started being kept in Kansas, the 2016 and 2017 fires are the only triple-digit fires in acreage ever reported. The largest fires reported in Kansas history have all been in roughly the past 20 years.

Kansas is not the only state seeing larger fires, said Michele Steinberg with the National Fire Protection Association.

The wildlife division manager said the nationwide trend could be contributed to ecosystems being primed to burn, with tall prairie grass serving as fuel and flammable invasive plants, such as pine trees, shrubs and bushes.

“It looks like we are getting into a cycle in a lot of states where conditions are more susceptible to fires than not,” she said.

The flames caused by invasive red cedar trees were factors in both of Kansas’ largest fires. While Steinberg was unaware of all aspects of the Kansas’ fires she did mention some factors that may have exacerbated the situation.

Steinberg said lack of mutual aid, since Oklahoma was fighting its own fire, and access to roads and water likely played a role. Additionally, she said trying to save homes that may not have been there 50 or 60 years ago could have taken resources away from controlling the flames.

In 1965, the Kansas Forest Service started keeping track of fires. Even so, State Forester Larry Biles said reporting fires was “more than a courtesy” but not a “highly rigid” rule.

Many fires, he said, went unreported.

“Partially because at that time it was telephone or letters,” Biles said. “With the technology the reporting is far easier.”

That most Kansas fire departments were, and still are, volunteers didn’t help past reporting, either, he said, since most of the volunteers had other jobs to get back to.

In 1996, the Kansas Office of the State Fire Marshal took over tracking fires. The forest service uses the fire marshal’s figures to report to the U.S. Forest Service for federal allocation of dollars.

Regulations to report fires to the fire marshal are not strictly enforced, but fire departments that do keep track have can apply for grants from either agency to help pay for equipment and other resources.

They way fires are growing in recent years, rural departments may need those added resources.

“The last two years have … been the perfect storm,” Biles said, “dry, high winds and low humidity.”

Largest fires in Kansas history

1. March 6, 2017: Meade, Clark and Comanche counties, roughly 509,000 acres — The largest fire in Kansas’ history, known as the Starbuck fire, started in Beaver County, Oklahoma, from a downed power line caused by strong winds. The winds moved the fire northeast through the Kansas counties of Meade (46,000 acres), Clark (426,00 acres), then Comanche (37,000 acres). The first call for fire support in Kansas came in Clark County at 1 p.m.

Damage: An estimated $44,650,000 in damage occurred in Clark County, according to the county’s emergency management department. Of the estimation, $41 million was in fencing, $1.28 million from 21 occupied homes that were destroyed and another $1.3 million for damage to electrical poles and wires. An addition nine unoccupied homes, appraised at $71,000, were destroyed. A home appraised at $52,420 home was destroyed in Comanche County. Three unoccupied homes were destroyed in Meade County.

2. March 22, 2016: Barber and Comanche counties, about 313,000 acres — The Anderson Creek fire burned approximately 272,000 acres in Barber County and another 41,000 acres in Comanche County. The fire started in Woods County, Oklahoma, and was caused by a vehicle. Firefighters in Kansas were first called to Barber County around 6:16 p.m.

Damage: $21 million was reported in fencing damage alone for Barber County, according to the county’s emergency management department. No other figures were available from the county. A mobile home appraised at $6,000 was destroyed in Comanche County.

3. March 22, 2011: Stanton County, approximately 38,000 acres — The Stanton County Fire and Rescue responded to a call in the southwest part of Stanton County around 11:23 a.m. The cause of the fire is undetermined.

Damage: A vehicle restoration business was destroyed. The siding on two homes was damaged as well. An estimate on the damage was not available.

4. March 27, 2002: Chase County; roughly 30,000 acres — The fire started from a burn pile in Chase County just west of Cottonwood Falls. Firefighters were called around noon.

Damage: Not available.

5. Feb. 24, 1996: Shawnee County, about 25,000 acres — Firefighters responded around 11 a.m. to the fire that started with a burn pile.

Damage: Two homes and several other buildings were destroyed. Property damages were estimated at $250,000, according to a report by the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.

6. March 12, 2006: Meade County, approximately 18,000 acres — The fire involved a farming baler and a power line. Firefighters responded around 3:30 p.m.

Damage: Not available.

Source: Kansas Office of the State Fire Marshal. Acreage figures are estimates provided by each county. Figures do not include losses for cattle.


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

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