With the start of a new year, fire officials in the region are already looking ahead and making preparations for what could be another spring of enhanced wildfire activity across parts of the High Plains.
Based on projections from the Kansas Mesonet weather forecasting system and the National Weather Service, southwest and central areas of Kansas could face an elevated threat for wildfires in 2019.
"We are seeing increased fuel loads in this region because of the late summer rains we received this past year," said Chip Redmond, mesonet manager and assistant scientist in the Weather Data Library at Kansas State University.
Redmond said he expects an early start to the spring fire season, due in part to the potential for early spring green-up. When greening vegetation is followed by freezes, that regrowth turns to kindling that contributes to fuel loads.
The last few years have followed a trend toward wetter summers followed by mild winters, which increases potential for fire activity, according to USDA's Southern Plains Climate Hub.
"For three years in a row, we have seen an increase in the severity of our fire season," said John Weir, a prescribed fire specialist at Oklahoma State University. "We need to be thinking about strategies now to help reduce this fuel load and protect our farmsteads and rural communities from the danger of wildfire. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective strategies is to use prescribed fire on the land."
By doing targeted "black line" burns around communities and structures when conditions permit, burn associations and fire departments can work together to protect homes and businesses, he said.
Several groups are coming together in central Oklahoma on January 5 to do just that.
The Southern Plains Climate Hub along with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Redlands Community College, Oklahoma State University, Noble Research Institute, Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Prescribed Fire Council, Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will jointly host a wildfire fuel suppression training school near the town of Concho.
As part of the training school, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes plan to burn black fire lines around the town as a precautionary measure.
According to Nathan Hart, executive director of the department of business for the tribes, the exercise is intended to help protect tribal headquarters while providing training on how to do prescribed burns.
"Our hope is that by conducting this training school, we will spur additional partnerships between burn associations and local volunteer fire departments to use prescribed fire as a tool to fight wildfire," he said.
Reducing potential fuel for wildfires can be accomplished in other common-sense ways, according to Weir. Rural homeowners should make sure trees and brush near their house are trimmed and mowed under and around, and remember that tree material that collects in gutters or alcoves can enhance the danger level. Another precautionary measure is to graze livestock more intensely around the farmstead and consider planting a green crop as a firebreak on the windward side of the property.
Another recommendation is to use nonflammable materials when building or repairing homes, sheds and other structures. Examples include metal roofing on barns and sheds and using pipe for corners and H-braces on fences. By installing water storage tanks on elevated areas of the property, it will be possible to pump them out even if the electricity goes out.
Important phone numbers should be kept updated and easily accessible. Weir also suggests homeowners examine their insurance coverage and make sure they have the necessary documentation to inventory losses, if needed.
In partnership with five other universities, including Kansas State, the University of Wyoming and New Mexico State, OSU recently compiled a report on preparing the farm or ranch for wildfire that is available at many extension offices or as an online factsheet from OSU.
Record-breaking wildfires have almost become routine for the Southern Plains in recent years. Two years ago, the Starbuck Fire consumed roughly 800,000 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas, making it the largest known wildfire to burn on privately held land in half a century. The costs of fighting it topped well over $80 million, according to Kansas officials.
Last year, a complex of fires — believed to be started by arcing power lines caused by high wind — burned over 350,000 acres in northwest Oklahoma.
The disastrous fires have helped increase awareness and response capabilities.
In Kansas, fire damage was minimal last year, a positive development that officials attribute to better preparation and coordination, a more aggressive initial attack and improved access to aid and resources.
For now, the spring wildfire outlook is considered normal for the Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions, with the El Nino climate pattern easing drought concerns.
"Given the ongoing onset of an El Nino state in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean this fall, the overall expectation is for average to above average precipitation to occur for the Southwest region through March," according to the National Interagency Coordination Center's Fire Prediction Services. "Confidence in this overall outlook is above average as the expected wet trend for the coming winter months is already developing. In addition, overall temperatures are expected to be below average as well during the outlook period, though a few warm and dry periods may be observed here and there. Mountain snowpack is expected to be at least average if not above average given the expected wetter than average conditions this winter."