MARQUETTE Fire officials worry this year’s potential for an outbreak in Kansas could be worse than last year, when the state saw its biggest known wildfire.
As a volunteer fire department chief based out of Marquette, Jim Unruh helped fight last year’s Anderson Creek blaze that charred 390,000 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas. That blaze also killed hundreds of cattle, destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of buildings and fences, and endangered hundreds of residents and volunteer firefighters.
Amid Kansas’ already dry conditions, problems have surfaced this year. Unruh’s crew in January battled a wildfire of 3,600 acres. Eric Ward, a Kansas Forest Service fire specialist, said the state in January had three large wildfires, which are defined as those that burn 100 or more acres of trees or 300 or more acres of brush or grass.
“I’ll be honest, this year just scares me, what we have out there right now,” Unruh told The Wichita Eagle. “It’s really, really getting dry out there, but holy cow, there’s so much fuel out there on some of these pastures it’s just unbelievable. If we get the wrong wind, we could have some big problems.”
Ward, whose office has tracked wildfires in Kansas since 2005, said that “until this year, we had a total of four large fires in the month of January during all that time.” He called the three in the most recent January “certainly unusual.”
“I think every indication is we are setting ourselves up for a fire season that could be more dangerous and active than most seasons,” Ward added. “Since Christmas I’ve seen accounts of fires almost daily. That is very much not normal. We’re not at a crisis point, but right now the conditions are there.”
After several years of drought, most of Kansas got consecutive summers of good to great rains in 2015 and last year — great news for those trying to feed cattle, but not for firefighters because the rains caused taller grass, providing more fuel to a spark.
Tall grass burns fast and hot, and grass that’s compacted on the ground smolders for long periods and can reignite the fires. This year there is both.