Burning off those dead tree branches and excess leaves that have fallen in the winter months? You may need to take extra caution when you consider doing so, as the season brings some of the greatest threats for grassland fire danger across the county.

Harvey County has a policy that applies to unincorporated areas to avoid such threats. According to Harvey County Emergency Management director Gary Denny, that starts with monitoring the grassland fire index. Individuals wanting to conduct an open burn must call emergency communications to make sure the threat level is below the "very high" category. Burning will then be approved based on several other factors, such as the overtaxation of local fire departments and available brush trucks.

Given the typical conditions during winter months, consideration of those additional factors is at a premium because of the increased threat.

"The percent of green — we're talking about vegetation, and that is the fuel that we have here in Harvey County — is minimal. Things are dry; there's no greening factor whatsoever. That's just ripe fuel waiting for those low-humidity, high-temperature, high-wind days. And the ignition of a fuel source isn't the issue, but it's how quickly it spreads."

This weekend's snowfall has put the fire index threat at "low," but the high winds and low humidity typical of the late fall/early winter can be a potent combination.

Denny noted because of the rapidly changing Kansas weather conditions that can bring those factors up at any moment, it is important to have some foresight when conducting open burns at this time of year.

"Where we run into problems is when people conduct an open burn and typically you have hot ashes for days after that," Denny said. "So, when they conduct open burns, they think 'today's just a beautiful day ... this is the perfect day to burn,' but they don't look ahead tomorrow or the day after when we have 60-, 70-degree temperatures and the winds are supposed to be 30 and gusting in the 40s. What that does is that insulated burn you conducted today in beautiful weather, that wind comes up tomorrow and just blows all that ash off the top, exposing those hot embers, and those 40 mph gusts just pick it up and spread it."

In particular, Harvey County residents in one particular region need to be especially cautious when burning in the winter months.

"The western part of the county is kind of a hot spot — the vegetation out there, especially in the Sand Hills," Denny said. "(The) Sand Hills is kind of an area that is inaccessible to normal modes of transportation, so a lot of the grasses out there are never mowed. This time of year, we have dry grasses that are chest high in some areas of western Harvey County. That is a huge fuel source, so those areas we really keep our eye on."

Precaution is something Denny urged for anyone conducting an open burn in the winter months — not just in the western portion of the county.

Local fire departments are available to extinguish embers if things get out of hand, especially if weather conditions shift quickly. With that in mind, Denny said those conducting burns should not be afraid to change their plans or call in help to keep things under control, being very intentional with their actions.

"Burning in winter months during dry conditions, it's common sense. Anticipate what the weather's going to do, not just today but the following days, and maintain situational awareness," Denny said. "I think everybody who conducts these open burns needs to understand the liability falls on them."

To check the grassland fire index for the region, visit www.weather.gov/ict/fire.