Winter is prime time for wildfires

India Yarborough
National Guard Black Hawk helicopters helped fight the Wheat State Fire near Burrton in Harvey County on Nov. 14 and 15. Winter is a prime time for wildfires in Kansas.

The risk of wildfires popping up in Kansas is higher now, and will be over the next few months, than during some of the hottest times of the year.

And that is despite rain that has fallen on areas recently victimized by large fires.

“Rain makes people forget, but we are only a week a way from wind and sunny weather that makes things dry out again,“ said Jim VanSchaick, fire chief for Halstead.

VanSchaick, his crew and about 20 others fought the Wheat State Fire about two weeks ago.

Dry land, low humidity and high winds are a triple threat when it comes to creating conditions in which wildfires thrive, according to Christopher Redmond, a Kansas State University meteorologist. And he said those risk factors can be common this time of year.

“Once we get our first big freeze, all the grass dries out, turns brown, and basically, we have a chance of a wildfire until that grass greens up in the spring,” Redmond said. “Most of our biggest fires happen between usually early November ... to early April.”

Starting Nov. 14, the Wheat State Fire scorched 7,000 of acres of farmland in the Harvey County Sand Hills region.

The cause of the fire was undetermined.

More than 20 departments responded to the fire in northwest Harvey County. National Guard Black Hawk helicopters were on scene to drop buckets of water to fight the flames.

The Wheat State Fire is 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.

Just this past week, a grass fire started southwest of Jackson County and spread north toward the town of Delia, causing evacuations in the area. Redmond said that fire fed off tall, dry grass and took advantage of the day’s strong winds.

He said that while most wildfires are fueled by natural factors, they are often caused by human actions.

He advises people to be cognizant of the weather, and on days with strong winds, he said, “reduce your potential for sparking.”

“Don’t weld. Be careful where you put those cigarettes,” Redmond said. “Don’t drive in tall grass is a common one because exhaust gets hot enough it can ignite the grass. Those are simple things to reduce the amount of heat you’re creating in a fuel or in a grass load.”

When people create burn piles, he added, they should check on the pile often and make sure there isn’t a potential for wind to disperse hot embers.

“I can’t tell you how many fires I’ve been to that you can see where their burn barrel was in their backyard, and you can see the fire just work right up to their house,” he said.

It is also beneficial to reduce the number of flammable things near your house. Redmond said that to prepare for fires, you should mow tall grass, make sure gutters and areas under decks are free of dry leaves, and you shouldn’t stack firewood against your home.

“That kind of thing will go a long way,” he said.

According to Redmond, this year has been abnormally dry and warm, and the recent Delia fire likely won’t be the last to pop up this season in the Topeka area.

“We’re just entering fire season,” he said. “The potential has been realized for one fire, and there’s going to be potential for more in the coming months.”

— Newton Kansan staff writer Chad Frey contributed to this report.

About 7,000 acres of farmland burned during the recent Wheat State Fire near Burrton, the second large wildfire in the Sand Hills region in five years. Both occurred during what experts call prime time for wildfires -- November through April.