Danger zone: March prime wildfire season

Chad Frey
The Kansan
In November, the Wheat State Fire torched 7,000 acres in Harvey County. The area is again entering a danger period for wildfires.

A short, simple email from Gary Denny, director of emergency management of Harvey County, had some flashbacks to November. 

"Today’s SitRep for Very High Grassland Fire Danger. Harvey County will be mid-range in the Very High category. Sunny, with a high near 62. South southwest wind 8 to 18 mph, with gusts as high as 29 mph," the email read.

In November, the Wheat State Fire torched 7,000 acres in Harvey County. More than 20 fire departments fought that fire — and they had help from National Guard Blackhawk helicopters in the battle. 

The calendar has flipped a few pages since that fire — and now the county is entering one of the highest-risk months for large fires, according to Denny. 

"We looked at the last 10 years, and March appears to be the most popular month for the large, multiple agency, events. If we can get through March, and in April showers can reduce that risk a bit, we will be happy," Denny said.  

This is a time of year that fire departments have been planning for — learning from the big events like the Wheat State Fire and how the response can be stronger.  

"We have revised our in-county plan," said Halstead fire Chief Jim VanSchaick. "All of our stations have an enhanced response. ... If it gets to Very High, Extreme or Catastrophic, we automatically respond — all of the different departments in the county. We devised that off of what we have done in the past but we have refined it a little more."

A department will respond to a grass or wildfire as it always had — but the backup from other departments is automatic. The responding department does not have to put in a call for help, as that help is on the way.

That saves some time. 

"The whole thing is to catch it as fast as you can before it gets bigger,"  VanSchaick said. "They are hard to control them anyway, because it is such a vast area. Nevertheless, the more units you can get there, maybe the quicker you can get it contained."

The weather conditions led to the very high rating — and they will also dictate over the coming days and weeks if that risk will increase or not.

The weather factors to look for are rain, warmer temperatures that help vegetation grow, wind and humidity. Unfortunately, those indicators do not look very good in the next few weeks. 

"We will be on pins and needles for a while. There is not sizeable precipitation in the forecast," Denny said. "March is a dry month and there is a lot of fuel on top. Until the percent of green is above the fuel, we will [be in danger]."

This year, in particular, is concerning to Denny because, he says, there is more fire fuel than normal in the county. 

Last year was a little wetter than normal, encouraging vegetation growth. When that vegetation dried out for winter, the Wheat State Fire occurred on the western side of the county. 

And then last month more fuel was added — several days of subzero temperatures turned evergreen trees brown in parts of the county. 

"The evergreen plants are brown now. A lot of the vegetation just froze," Denny said. "We had subzero temps for so long. The added fuel is out there."

Denny did say that, based on weather projections, the wildfire season could be shorter this year — but that could also mean a longer severe weather season when storms begin. 

"We always have to be aware and thinking of those things," Denny said. 

The Wheat State Fire was the largest in Harvey County since 2016, when more than 15 square miles of western Harvey County went up in smoke the week before Easter. In 2016, the Harvey County Sheriff’s Department issued voluntary evacuation warnings, with about a dozen homes evacuated. In Harvey County, one home was destroyed. The fire scorched 12,000 acres of pasture land in Harvey County, about one-fifth of the total agricultural land of Harvey County, according to county Farm Service Agency executive director Jack Kelly.

Those are days that local fire chiefs do not want to repeat.

"One of the things we  have in our county that I can really appreciate is the cooperation between the departments," VanSchaick said. "We have a lot of automatic aid agreements and a lot of interactions. The command staffs of all the departments work well together. We are really fortunate in Harvey County."