An official with the Kansas Forest Service says this first weekend of March brings a high risk of wildfire in Kansas.
“We're looking at an extended, unusually severe fire season this spring, but this weekend that we're focusing on right now is the most immediate and most severe threat we may have this year,” said Eric Ward, a fire planning specialist with the Kansas Forest Service in Manhattan. “This particular weekend is at the very upper end of fire danger, similar to what we've had preceding Anderson Creek, Starbuck, Highlands and other critical fires in recent years.”
The biggest concern is water, or the lack of it. The National Integrated Drought Information System compiles data from a multitude of state and federal agencies to provide information on current drought conditions, and manages the Drought Early Warning System. The most recent snapshot of Kansas places more than 73 percent of the state in moderate, severe or extreme drought conditions. At the same time last year, those conditions were present in a little more than 37 percent of the state.
“The southern and western parts of the state – especially the far southwest – is just dangerously dry right now. This persistent dryness will make it much more difficult to stop any fire that does start,” Ward said.
Normally, at the end of winter, most areas of Kansas experience dry conditions. The cold winds of winter naturally dessicate most plant growth, even if it’s dormant. Ward said this year is different: Last year’s exceptional growing season produced a lot of vegetation in the spring and summer months, but then the precipitation suddenly stopped.
“I’ve been told that some areas of Kansas have now broken the state record for the most days without measurable precipitation,” he said. “So, thinking back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, we have now beaten that.”
In preparation for this weekend and the rest of the fire season, the Kansas Forest Service has been joining forces with other agencies, including the Division of Emergency Management, the state fire marshal's office, the Kansas Interagency Wildfire Council, and several federal agencies. The neighboring Oklahoma Forestry Services is also sharing information.
“We’re encouraging local fire departments, if they get any kind of fire this weekend, to call way more help than they normally would – immediately,” Ward said. “Don't wait till you get there to see if you need help – just call for help.”
“If it takes 20 minutes to get to the fire, and then call for more help, that may make the difference between stopping a fire and going home in a couple of hours, and being there until Wednesday.”
For Kansans living in fire-prone areas, Ward said it’s best to make preparations early, following the “Ready, Set, Go” plan:
Ready – Look over your property for any potential fire hazards, such as dead plant debris, gutters full of leaves, or firewood stacked close to the house.
Set – “When we get into a situation like this weekend when there's a chance for catastrophic fires, make sure the cars are full of gas. Make sure you’ve set aside the important papers, the pictures, the wedding albums. Maybe stick them in a box so if you have to run out the door you can take that stuff with you,” Ward said. Also, if you have pets, make sure you have leashes, crates, a toy or two, along with food and fresh water.
Go – For Ward, this is non-negotiable: “If you get an evacuation order, do it now. Don't wait until later and say ‘well, we're going to stick around to see if it turns out OK.’ (Evacuating) is much safer for the public, and it's much safer for the emergency responders.” The longer you wait, the greater the risk that when things really get hot, it will be too dangerous to leave.
Even if this weekend passes without a major wildfire outbreak, Ward cautioned that things are just getting started.
“If we make it through this weekend, we’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief, but it may only last for a few days, and the next time there's a weather system coming through that brings dry air and high winds, it might be just as dangerous again,” he said.
“This weekend's worse than normal, but this whole spring is going to be a problem.”