Kansas now has a wildfire season — here’s what that means

Kansas Wildfires
Illustration by Vicente MartÍ

It’s March, which means it’s wildfire season in Kansas.

Yes, wildfire season. In Kansas. Although the concept of seasonal conditions that causes locals to fear fires is well-established in the west—especially in the piney high desert—few think of wildfires as a threat to this region.

Yet the two largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history occurred in the past five years. In March 2016, the Anderson Creek fire burned over two hundred and fifty thousand acres in southern Kansas. Almost exactly one year later, the Starbuck wildfire broke the record set the year before by scorching over five hundred thousand acres near Wichita, making it the largest fire in Kansas history.

The wildfire season, which runs from late February to early April, is getting more attention, so much so that Kansas Governor Laura Kelly proclaimed the first week in February Wildfire Awareness Week.

Chip Redmond, assistant meteorologist at Kansas State University, oversees the state’s network of weather stations and says fire awareness “has grown significantly in the Great Plains over the last few decades.”

According to Bryce Haverkamp of the Kansas Forest Service, most fires are caused by Kansas’ dry air and seasonally strong winds, which cause wildfires to spread quickly.

Trees are also a factor—especially the red cedar, a species planted as windbreaks during the Dust Bowl days, which can become invasive if not carefully managed. Central and western Kansas were once dominated by grasslands, and woody trees make the land more susceptible to dangerous woodland wildfires.

“Our grass fires are light, flashy fuel, so they move really fast,” Haverkamp says. Woodland fires “move a little slower and are not as aggressive burning,” he says, but they burn hotter and longer largely due to the massively dense amounts of flammable material.

Research by the University of Nebraska suggests a connection between the increase of woodlands in the Great Plains and an increase in the amount and size of wildfires in the region.
Wildfire season may seem out of the ordinary for an area like Kansas, but after two of the largest fires in Kansas history devastated the landscape five short years ago, Haverkamp says the Kansas Forest Service is focused on training local fire departments and landowners on wildfire awareness, suppression and prevention.

“We like to use the term ‘students of fire’ all the time,” he says, “because we’re constantly learning and training ourselves to gain more information.”

Did you know? Volunteer firefighters make up 84 percent of first-line defenses in Kansas.

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