Kansas’ wildfire puzzle: It’s about drought and wind, culture and financial resources

By Tim Carpenter

MANHATTAN — Jason Nelson was among a dozen of so farmers and ranchers in Jewell County who agreed 15 years ago to form a prescribed burn association to grapple with a force of nature capable of destroying homes, businesses and lives while wreaking havoc on the landscape.

Membership has grown to about 60 members who work together and share equipment to deliberately burn plant material that could feed unwanted wildfires on remote terrain far from big-city firetrucks and full-time firefighters. The concept of burning to prevent fires can be a tough sell to some landowners who don’t want to take part in clearing grass, brush and trees from their property, Nelson said.

The work of the Jewell County organization and 13 other prescribed burn associations in Kansas has grown in prominence as the scope of wildfires intensified.

“It’s been really great to see the progress we’ve made,” Nelson said. “The biggest thing? It’s nice to see guys that would not sit down and drink coffee together, come together and help each other burn.”

‘They’re getting bigger’

Wildfires in Kansas have been driven by climate shifts that foster dry, windy conditions in zones with plentiful plant material. Since 2016, three massive fires in Kansas big enough to be documented by satellite have consumed more than 900,000 acres.

That included the December 2021 Four County Fire that relied on 100 mph winds and dry vegetation to blow through 163,000 acres and kill two people in central Kansas. In 2017, there was the 450,000-acre fire that emerged in Clark and Comanche counties in southwest Kansas. The Anderson Creek blaze in 2016 blossomed out of Oklahoma to flash through 315,000 acres of southern Kansas.

The Kansas fire marshal has documented an average of 6,000 woodland fires annually, but there is suspicion the reporting system only accounts for half of the actual fires.

In July, Gov. Laura Kelly established a task force dedicated to comprehensive examination of options for mitigating wildfire threats, upgrading the state and local emergency response to blazes and developing a better prescription for recovery of communities harmed by these disasters.

Brenden Wirth, a task force member and regional administrator for the Kansas Farm Bureau, said the incidence in Kansas of 10,000-acre wildfires was on the rise and that trend would continue. This new normal should inspire changes in rural attitudes about the value in managing grasslands and cedar trees, he said.

“If you think it’s happening more often, it is,” Wirth said. “They’re getting bigger and we have to learn how to manage them.”

Wirth said during a Farm Bureau forum in Manhattan that folks couldn’t afford to ignore the problem. Lack of action could compel adoption of state laws mandating prescribed burns, he said.

“No law is going to fix the amount of fires,” he said. “There is culture I think we can get our hands around to be able to change the concept of how we manage our properties — invasive species, cedar threes, overgrowth — across the state.”

The shape of reform

Mike Beam, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture and chairman of a wildfire task force assembled by the governor, said the group had met four times since July and was closing in on a set of recommendations for confronting the threat of wildfire.

He said a uniform, statewide system of evaluating risk of fire would be useful. Better accounting of wildfires would create a clearer picture of the evolving challenge in Kansas. Perhaps modest incentives could be offered to smaller fire departments to document the 50- or 80-acre incidents that tend to go unreported, he said.

He said an underappreciated contributor to wildfires could be the poor condition of power poles extending to oil and gas wells.

“There is a feeling for some that may be one of our biggest risks of starting a fire when we get high wind conditions,” Beam said.

Beam said some states used tax credits to persuade employers to encourage workers to be part of the volunteer firefighting services. The firefighting network in Kansas included 640 departments, but 13,000 of the 16,000 firefighters were volunteers. The cadre of people willing and able to volunteer hasn’t grown despite the importance of those services provided smaller communities.

Another possibility would be to offer small units of government funds needed to match federal grants used in the recovery phase of a wildfires, Beam said.

The task force has also considered the potential of a $3.5 million budget increase for the Kansas Forest Service, which provides backup for personnel fighting wildfires. It could be difficult to convince the 2023 Legislature to vote for an increase of five times the current budget.

The Kansas Reflector is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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