Typically, with the month of February comes the start of fire season, according to McPherson Fire Chief T.J. Wyssmann. Running through the end of April — when the area starts to get more precipitation to help things green up — this season brings a greater risk of wildfires and grass fires in the area.
"It's a pretty significant fire season anymore because we have some factors that have contributed to this and exacerbated it a little bit. People are moving back to the county and they like to have the nature feel around their structures and their houses; they let the grass grow up higher and we've taken a lot of land that used to be in agricultural production, we've taken it out of agricultural production and allowed natural grasses to grow back up," Wyssmann said. "The problem is that mother nature's way of cleaning up that grass and getting rid of that undergrowth is to have lightening strikes or wildfires that push through and burn through the prairie pretty hard."
Such fires can spread pretty quickly, so maintaining access around the county and pre-planning for those scenarios has become a focus for the department in recent years. Currently, the McPherson Fire Department is working to get the city certified as a "Firewise" community — a program of the National Fire Protection Association encouraging all community members to take ownership and action in preparing and protecting their homes against the threat of wildfires.
On a statewide level, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly has proclaimed Feb. 3-7, 2020, as Wildfire Awareness Week in partnership with the Kansas Interagency Wildfire Council and multiple state agencies.
“Each year, wildfires endanger our firefighters, neighbors, and landscapes,” said Mick McGuire, the current chair of the Kansas Interagency Wildfire Council and lead meteorologist of the National Weather Service in Wichita. “Wildfire Awareness Week reminds us that we all have a part to play in preventing wildfires and protecting our communities.”
Preliminary data from the Office of the State Fire Marshall indicates that reported vegetation fires were down to 2,502 fires burning 27,907 acres in 2019 as compared to 6,316 fires that burned 185,610 acres in 2018.
Those statistics could be somewhat misleading, though, as Wyssmann noted the wetter 2019 actually points to that trend reversing in 2020 — given what that rainfall did for the main fuel source of wildfires.
"Because of last year, we really have a higher risk this year because we got so much rain last year, so vegetation is growing up to 6, 7-foot tall and it's just standing out in fields or along where people build those housing developments," Wyssmann said.
While reported wildfires were lower in 2019 due to above normal precipitation amounts, cooperating agencies within KIWC caution Kansans to not become complacent when it comes to doing their part to reduce the risk of and prepare for wildfires. Nearly 95 percent of all wildfires result from the activity of people, indicating there is still room for improvement.
"While some wild land fires can't be prevented because they spring from lightning strikes or other natural causes, many are avoidable by carefully observing basic precautions when using fires outdoors," Gov. Kelly said.
Developments on the north side of McPherson, near the country club, are some of the most at risk because of where they are located, according to Wyssmann. There are a number of ways — manly highlighted through the Firewise program — that residents can be proactive against those threats, including eliminating potential fuel sources around their houses, creating defensible spaces between potential fuel sources (i.e. pine or cedar trees) and structure and being aware of weather conditions.
With the weather in particular, Wyssman advised McPherson residents to be wary of red flag days (when burning is banned), as even the most innocuous activities can lead to potential threats.
"People who are doing harmless things like barbecuing can cause things to get out of control rather quickly," Wyssmann said.
McGuire said that every Kansan can implement the tips and best practices highlighted during Wildfire Awareness Week to prevent dangerous wildfires.
“I urge everyone to take simple, precautionary steps like pruning trees and shrubs around homes and removing old debris from yards. Kansas experiences it's heaviest wildfire activity during the early spring months, but fires occur during all seasons of the year, including winter,” he said.
The Kansas Interagency Wildfire Council and partner agencies suggest the following to mitigate the risk of wildfire and reduce potential impacts if a wildfire does occur:
Create defensible space around homes by removing leaves and other plant debris and flammable material that could catch embers. Replace or repair loose or missing shingles. Provide adequate space between the home and trees or other landscaping.
Establish a community or neighborhood group to participate in or be a part of creating a wildfire mitigation and response plan.
Prevent wildfires from starting by avoiding activities that can spark fires near buildings and potential fuel sources.
Write and follow your burn plan for prescribed fire, including checking the weather forecast, and continue to monitor the burn area to make sure it hasn’t reignited.
Consider volunteering with your local fire department. Quick responses by local fire departments prevent what could become a devastating wildfire.
Throughout the 2020 Wildfire Awareness Week, the Kansas Interagency Wildfire Council and partner agencies including the National Weather Service Office, Kansas Division of Emergency Management, Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Kansas Forest Service, and others will remind Kansans of the dangers posed by wildfires and easy to implement practices to prevent and mitigate the risk of wildfires.
In the eyes of Wyssmann, awareness can be a big part of that battle.
"Just being cognizant of what you're doing is our biggest thing. The majority of our wild land fires are very unintentional," Wyssmann said. "This year, when we have the vegetation that we do and the meteorologists are predicting low moisture patterns to be coming in the future months, we're going to have a pretty busy wildfire season. So, if people could just be cognizant of things and watch what they're doing, it'd be much appreciated for us to not have those long days or even weeks trying to battle these fires."