K-State meteorologist says weather patterns play a large role in wildfires
By Maddy Rohr, K-State Research and Extension news service
MANHATTAN, Kan. — The beginning of the year has been quiet for Kansas wildfires after above average moisture in January, but the trend may not continue into peak fire season. In previous years, the incidence of fires increased due to the state’s ongoing drought, resulting in grass or fuel loading.
Chip Redmond, the manager of the Kansas Mesonet, a network of 70 weather stations throughout the state, said short-term weather drives fire potential and determines grass’s ability to burn, making fire season predictions challenging.
“Contrary to popular belief, large wildfires in Kansas are usually independent of long-term drought conditions,” Redmond said. “Weather events like a mid-latitude cyclone — a low pressure system that typically forms east of the Rocky Mountains and moves across the Plains — typically feature strong winds and provide significant challenges with shifting winds that make firefighting dangerous and fire spread nearly impossible to suppress.”
Strong, low-pressure systems can be forecasted 1-2 weeks in advance. Beyond that, forecasters look at upcoming patterns, Redmond adds.
“La Nina (a cooling of ocean surface temperatures that is often associated with inland drought) remains the main contributor in the extended forecast despite starting to show signs of weakening,” Redmond said. “An active pattern is set to continue with 1-2 storm systems a week across the central US. This will be enhanced somewhat by the still persistent impacts of La Nina.”
Redmond said those areas that have received moisture will likely continue to see precipitation, which doesn’t favor the central and western parts of the state, which will remain mostly dry.
“The conclusion of fire season is typically considered if or when grasses green up across the state. This varies by year and is mostly dependent on soil moisture and temperatures,” Redmond said.
Eric Ward, Kansas Forest Service assistant fire management officer, said fires occur statewide during the spring, but the south-central area has a history of very serious spring fires, and the Kansas Flint Hills always has a lot of fires.
“Most fires in Kansas are caused by human activity,” Ward said. “Debris burning, escaped prescribed burn, welding or cutting in dry grass, dragging chains, defective equipment. Be especially cautious on any dry breezy day – which is pretty common in a Kansas springtime before things green up.”
Preventing loss due to fires begins with preparing your property to survive a fire by clearing brush away from homes, cleaning gutters regularly and having noncombustible siding and roofing material.
“In a major wildfire, the fire department will simply not have enough resources to protect every home or property, so those that can survive on their own have the best chance,” Ward said.
He notes that the Kansas Forest Service supports the safe use of prescribed fire, but doing so comes with precautions.
“It is a powerful, dangerous tool that must be used carefully,” Ward said. “Those wishing to burn should get training in how to do so safely, and partner with neighbors to help each other out and ensure enough personnel and equipment are on scene to keep the fire where it is supposed to be.”
Ward suggests checking the fire weather forecast on the local National Weather Service website to get weather information specific to fire behavior, such as dropping humidity or forecasted wind shifts.
“Weather should be checked for the day of the planned burn, but also for at least 2-4 days after. A number of fires in recent years occurred when the weather was okay on the day of the burn but turned dry and windy a day or two later, and a residual ember was whipped to flame and causes damage,” Ward said.
The Kansas Forest Service Fire Management Program offers resources and tools to learn more about fire control and prevention.
“Wildfires are a real risk for Kansas even with recent moisture. People should have a plan and take proper precautions to avoid fire starts and limit fire spread,” Redmond said.