WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Trees in Kansas pose a mounting wildfire risk as they continue to take over grassland around the state, according to a new study.
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Initial research from the University of Nebraska also suggests a link between the proliferation of trees in the Great Plains and an increase in the size and frequency of wildfires.
“Trees promote more extreme wildfire behaviors that are much more difficult to suppress,” said Victoria Donovan, a researcher at the university, told KCUR-FM radio Monday. “In the Great Plains, in general, if you have woody vegetation we see a higher wildfire risk.”
Historically, the Great Plains has not had many trees. The few in the region usually grew near rivers and streams. But contemporary fire-suppression strategies and the increase of homes and businesses nurtured wooded areas.
Kansas experienced its largest wildfire ever in 2017, and the six largest fires ever have all been recorded in the past 25 years.
A great way to control the spread of trees into grasslands, Donovan noted, is through regularly prescribing controlled burns. By reintroducing fires, which were a more natural part of the ecosystem, it would help keep the grass healthier and eradicate undesired trees.
Kansas fire departments have decades of experience extinguishing grass fires, but they are inexperienced at battling woodland fires.
“There’s definitely a difference in the fire regime once you start getting a conversion from natural prairie grass to the brush and timber types of fuels,” said Eric Ward, an assistant fire management officer at the Kansas Forest Service.
Christopher “Chip” Redmond, a meteorologist at Kansas State University who oversees the state’s network of weather stations, said wetter weather can spurt the wildfires.
“It helped extensive … grass growth,” Redmond said, “which is our primary fuel in Kansas.”
A storm system that brings in air and strong winds could prompt large fires in Kansas this spring, according to Redmond.
Gov. Laura Kelly signed a proclamation declaring the week of Feb. 3 as Wildfire Awareness Week.
“While some wildland fires can’t be prevented because they spring from lightning strikes or other natural causes,” she said, “many are avoidable by carefully observing basic precautions when using fires outdoors.”
In 2019, Kansas fire departments responded to more than 2,500 grass or field fires. The fires caused four deaths and burned nearly 28,000 acres (11,331 hectares).
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