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Kansas may face 30 more days yearly of high wildfire risk as its climate changes

Mark Penner, of the Kansas Forest Service, helps carry out a controlled fire on property owned by the University of Kansas in November. Prescribed burns help keep habitat healthy and make wildfires less dangerous.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Mark Penner, of the Kansas Forest Service, helps carry out a controlled fire on property owned by the University of Kansas in November. Prescribed burns help keep habitat healthy and make wildfires less dangerous.

A changing climate looks poised to increase wildfire conditions significantly. That would compound other growing risks, such as the aggressive spread of eastern red cedars.

A changing climate may bring many more days per year of extreme wildfire risk to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The findings from a new study also suggest people in those states should brace for more of these days at seemingly unlikely times of the year.

“Even in the winter,” said Guo Yu, an assistant research professor at the Desert Research Institute who studies precipitation and climate change. “In the future, when we have a drier and warmer winter, there’s a high probability wildfire could occur.”

Yu and his colleagues looked at the four most common North American indices that firefighting agencies use to stay alert about wildfire-prone weather.

Think of these as more advanced versions of the Smokey Bear fire danger levels that parks sometimes display, he said.

The indices pull together conditions such as wind speed and humidity relative to temperature.

Researchers combined them with climate change models to project wildfire risks into the future.

This analysis suggests that by the last decade of this century, the region that includes Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas will see 30 more days per year of extreme risk for wildfire, Yu said. Today, this region typically experiences about six of these days annually.

The extra days of extreme risk will be scattered throughout the year, including more instances of these conditions in the wintertime.

Kansas dealt with just that in 2021, when the Four-County Fire struck the Smoky Hills just two weeks before Christmas.

 An excavator lowers cattle carcasses into a burial pit on Koester's ranch. He estimates he lost more than a third of his herd to the fire.
David Condos
/
Kansas News Service
An excavator lowers dead cattle into a burial pit in the Smoky Hills in 2021 after the Four-County Fire swept through this ranching region too fast to protect livestock.

An extreme windstorm with gusts up to 100 mph carried flames across more than 120,000 acres of Russell, Ellis, Osborne and Rooks counties. Scattered blazes burned thousands of acres elsewhere, with 54 wildfires starting in 34 counties on a single day.

Fire agencies are stretched thin

The expected increase in wildfire-prone weather conditions highlights the importance of taking preventive measures in a region that has begun to see more destructive blazes than in decades past.

And it raises questions about how to support the already stretched firefighting agencies that protect rural areas. About 80% of the state’s fire departments consist entirely of volunteers.

When fires are small and easily contained, firefighters can get the job done quickly. But increasingly, volunteers find themselves called upon to tackle blazes that last many hours and days.

“They have jobs, they have families,” state forester Jason Hartman said earlier this fall. “They aren’t available for those longer-term (firefights) as easily as they are for the shorter-term grass fires — true grass fires — we used to have in this state.”

The landscape of Kansas and neighboring states is moving from grassland to shrub and juniper woodland, a transformation caused by humans.

Native juniper trees — commonly called eastern red cedars — are spreading aggressively and greatly intensifying wildfires.

“They look like a Roman candle going off,” Hutchinson fire Capt. Troy Mueller said while training firefighters near Scott City last April. “A 30-foot, 40-foot tall cedar tree … will have 50-, 60-foot flame lengths above the top of the tree and can throw an ember out into the grass a quarter mile (away) and start another fire.”

As birds carry seeds away from a grove of eastern red cedars, saplings pop up across this Flint Hills grassland in Morris County. Areas that aren’t burned regularly convert into juniper woodland.
Ryan Armbrust
/
Kansas Forest Service
As birds carry seeds away from a grove of eastern red cedars, saplings pop up across this Flint Hills grassland in Morris County. Areas that aren’t burned regularly convert into juniper woodland.

A recent report issued by a new task force on wildfire in Kansas calls for helping communities and landowners beat back these trees.

It also calls for clear regulation of certain kinds of poorly maintained, rural power lines that are suspected of starting some wildfires.

The new study led by Yu shows that climate change will likely make risky situations such as juniper expansion and sagging power lines even riskier. The study appeared in the journal Earth’s Future.

Major fires increasing on the Great Plains

Large wildfires have become more common on the Great Plains in recent decades, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln concluded in 2017.

Some of the biggest recorded blazes in Kansas happened in the past decade:

  • March 2016: Anderson Creek Fire (280,000 acres).
  • March 2017: Starbuck Fire (460,000 acres).
  • December 2021: Four-County Fire (120,000 acres).

The biggest — the March 2017 Starbuck fire — and other fires that ignited at about the same time burned more than 2 million acres across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Eastern red cedars played a significant role in intensifying the 2016 and 2017 fires, the state’s wildfire task force said.

“Over the last 20-plus years,” the panel wrote, “the Kansas landscape has evolved in a manner that creates greater risks for wildfires that are almost impossible to contain during dry and windy conditions.”

The evergreens spreading into these deciduous woods in Riley County are eastern red cedars. In dry, windy weather, these junipers make the woods more prone to fast-moving, hard-to-stop crown fires.
Ryan Armbrust
/
Kansas Forest Service
The evergreens spreading into these deciduous woods in Riley County are eastern red cedars. In dry, windy weather, these junipers make the woods more prone to fast-moving, hard-to-stop crown fires.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has created a public education campaign to help residents of the Great Plains understand why junipers are spreading, and the reasons for concern. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has launched the Great Plains Grassland Initiative to help ranchers in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma combat the trees.

What can Kansas and its residents do?

Many ranchers, especially in the Flint Hills, use controlled fires to fight the junipers that otherwise eat up their rangeland.

But some landowners don’t have the means to combat the trees, even if they want to.

And plenty of people outside the ranching industry enjoy the trees and allow them to spread, creating tension at times among neighbors.

Often homeowners like the privacy these dense evergreens create, so they aren’t necessarily bothered by the increase in juniper woods hugging their suburban neighborhoods and semirural ranchettes.

But in March 2022, wildfire struck juniper-packed suburbs in Reno County. More than 6,000 acres burned. One person died and more than 100 buildings, including 36 homes, were destroyed.

The wildfire task force says all those eastern red cedars made it hard to stop the flames.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly created the task force in 2022. Its November report encourages state and federal agencies to control problem species on their property — along highways, for example. And it calls for helping private landowners do the same.

A photo shows homes on the outskirts of Manhattan overlooking a draw full of eastern red cedars. Houses on the edges of towns and cities generally face higher risks of wildfire.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Homes on the outskirts of Manhattan overlook a gully of eastern red cedars and prairie.

The task force recommends more resources, equipment and training for firefighters and local burn associations that carry out controlled blazes called prescribed fire.

The Kansas Forest Service should get more state funding to that end, it says, and to help the agency coordinate community wildfire protection plans.

Federal grants can help communities and landowners take prevention measures, but these often require matching funds to qualify. The report suggests the state government could help out.

It also says documenting the causes of all wildfires — “no matter how small or large” — could help guide prevention measures. Many Kansas wildfires go uninvestigated.

In particular, the task force found a common suspicion that some wildfires are started by poorly maintained, rural power lines that carry electricity to facilities such as oil fields and that are not owned by utilities.

It recommends putting the Kansas Corporation Commission, which oversees the energy industry in Kansas, in charge of regulating the situation.

Former Kansas News Service reporter David Condos contributed to this report.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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