Kansas wildfire

March winds, heavy fuel load in grasslands brings unprecedented wildfires

First week of March sees fires burning in 21 Kansas counties; largest in Clark County burns 350,000 acres.

Here we go again.

A year ago — well, a few weeks short of a year ago — the Kansas Livestock Association called on its members to donate hay, supplemental feed, milk replacer, fencing supplies and money to help people who had been devastated by the (then) worst wildfire in Kansas history, the Anderson Creek wildfire.

Now, just short of a year later, wildfires of a size never seen by European settlers of the prairie are sweeping across the state. On March 6, 21 counties in Kansas were battling fires, the biggest in Clark and Comanche counties in southwest Kansas, where 500,000 acres burned.

Across the state, more than 1,000 square miles — almost 700,000 acres — burned. Once again, the Kansas Livestock Association is asking its members in more fortunate regions of the state to help their own.

Now, as it was a year ago, the response has been heartwarming. It took only a few days for hay sufficient for fire victims to arrive.

On March 14, $50,000 worth of fencing materials arrived in Ashland, thanks to a generous donation from Cargill. KLA and Farm Bureau are again asking for cash donations and more fencing materials, which will most assuredly be given generously.

The deeper problem Kansas and other prairie states must address is the fact that wildfire seems to be a worsening problem. The Anderson Creek fire was called a "100-year event." To have an even bigger fire in just under a year is alarming.

The root of the conflagrations is weather. Kansas has experienced year after year of wet springs and moderately wet summers, resulting in rapid growth of prairie grasses, along with dry winters and early springs with warm temperatures and high winds — the combination needed to dry out heavy growth and create ample fuel loads.

February of 2017 produced an average monthly temperature of 45.8 degrees F, about 8.5 degrees above normal for the month. The high for the month was 77 degrees F on Feb. 22. Precipitation for the month was less than an inch.

More than half of the month — 15 days — saw temperatures above 60 degrees F, and eight days were above 70 degrees. Nighttime lows were also warm. Fourteen nights, half of the month, were above freezing, and six days were above 40 degrees F.

The result was wheat that broke dormancy in mid-February, grassland that was abundant and dry as a bone, and conditions that were ripe for wildfire.

The final ingredient, wind, arrived on schedule in early March, and the fires have followed. Is Kansas seeing the reality of climate change? For our fellow Kansans struggling to save their injured cattle; replace their destroyed fences, barns, paddocks and homes; or rebuild their destroyed homesteads, climate change is a distant question. Let's help them first. But then we must ask ourselves if we're going to deal with this far more often than we did in the past and how we're going to plan for the next one.

If 100-year events become annual, it's going to take more resources to keep up. Where will they come from? We need to answer that question.

TAGS: Weather
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