Dry weather fuels grass fire worries

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January 31, 2018 - 12:00 AM

Abnormally dry conditions across the state and region have sparked fears of a repeat of last year’s devastating wildfires that destroyed 651,000 acres in central and western Kansas.
Locally, though, Allen County’s top emergency management official said he feels confident citizens are responsive and responsible when it comes to fire control, and local departments are prepared for the coming fire season.
Massive, multi-day wildfires broke records in the springs of 2016 and 2017. The outlook for fire danger this coming burning season is similar and likely could start even earlier, Eric Ward, fire planning specialist with the Kansas Forest Service, said.
“As bad as last spring was, we’re going into this spring with the same setup,” Ward said.
After last spring’s fires, heavy rainfall led to a robust spring. But the spigots dried up by the end of the summer. The U.S. Drought Monitor puts 47 percent of the state, mostly in the east and north, in the “abnormally dry” category — not quite at drought level — but the remaining 53 percent of the state suffers from moderate to extreme drought. Long-range forecasts do not anticipate an improvement.
Allen County falls into the “abnormally dry” category. The last significant rain fell Oct. 21, when 1.77 inches dropped on Iola, according to state and local weather statistics. Since then, rain has been scarce. Just 0.15 inches fell in November and the same amount in December. So far this year, just 0.52 inches have fallen. Normally, January receives 2.70 inches of precipitation.
A little bit of precipitation in the form of snow could fall over the area this weekend and next week. The National Weather Service forecasts a 20 percent chance of snow Sunday afternoon and a 30 percent chance of rain and snow Tuesday.
Lack of snow in much of the eastern and southern parts of the state failed to tamp down last season’s heavy grass growth. That could contribute to an abundance of fuel if dry conditions continue, Ward said.
“That said, two or three days of well-timed rain in the early season could change that. But it’s not in the outlook right now,” he said.
A Red Flag warning, which indicates conditions are right for an extreme fire, was issued last week for the local area and another was issued Tuesday for much of the state. Ward said he can’t remember a Red Flag warning ever being issued in January. Grass fires were reported last week in nearly every county, he said.
The state’s typical burning season is March to mid-April, but Ward said most state and federal officials predict they’ll see fires much earlier this year.
Allen County so far hasn’t had to issue a burn ban, Jason Trego, emergency management coordinator, said.
“For the most part, our citizens are pretty responsive if we get the word out,” Trego said. “We have quite a bit of open land but so far, to my knowledge, we haven’t had that big of a problem with big fires getting out of control.”
Trego said local fire departments work well together in the event of a fire. If something happens that taxes their resources, neighboring counties are trained to respond. The county also can call for state assistance to manage an incident, Trego said.
The record-breaking wildfires in 2016 and 2017 are new to Kansas. State agencies learn to adapt each year, Ward said. Historically, rural fire departments in Kansas began in the 1960s. Fires are fought with reliance on local departments or those from neighboring areas. Recently, though, Kansas has turned to states like Texas and Oklahoma to learn how to better mobilize resources for large scale, multi-day fires of the sort that terrorized the state in recent years.
“Every time we do it, we pick up a little more information to fine tune the process,” Ward said. “I hope we don’t get fires like that again, but I think we’ll be better ready than we were last year.”

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