Fire that ravaged near buildings in Stika, Kansas during March 2017. Courtesy of Bo Rader of the Wichita Eagle
KU Statehouse Wire Service
All across Kansas the land is beginning to look scorched once again; a reminder of the wildfire that burned three years ago, causing millions of dollars of damages. That seemingly destructive fire also allowed for the land to renew itself after years of neglect, leading to changes in the way Kansas handles fire.
At the end of March 2016, a record for the largest fire in Kansas history was set — 313,000 acres burned, an estimated $30 million in total damages.
One year later, that record was broken. In early March fires raged across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. It caused the deaths of thousands of livestock, the destruction of nearly 1 million acres and millions of dollars in damages.
This fire destroyed nearly 400,000 acres of ranch land, out of 650,000 acres burned in 2017.
The massive wildfire in 2017 became known as “The Starbuck Fire,” and estimated to have caused $50 million in total damages to Kansas alone. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, as many as 8,000 animals were killed and nearly 20 percent of counties were affected.
The two largest wildfires in Kansas history occurred in back to back years. But since then, there have been no destructive wildfires.
In June 2018, a legislative post audit was released to inform the Kansas Legislature on their insufficient wildfire suppression system. In response, the state gave $650,000 to the Kansas Forestry Service, housed within Kansas State University, for statewide fire suppression efforts.
The audit found changes needed to be made after comparing Kansas to the states with the best fire suppression practices in the nation (North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas). The massive wildfires that engulfed the state led to this change as well.
A catastrophe, then funding
Mark Neely, the state fire management officer for Kansas Forest Service, said it took a catastrophe to occur before they received any funding at all.
“Now that we have the $650,000, we’re able to do more things,” said Neely. “We’ve done coordination with folks, the local volunteer departments have done more training, they’ve taken initiative themselves to get better equipment, so they can attack these fires earlier, quicker and hit them hard.”
Along with more training provided to volunteer fire departments, the money has also allowed K-State Forestry to provide resources for them that weren’t previously available across the state.
“Throughout the state we have over $40 million of equipment that we’ve been able to pick up and loan out to different fire departments,” said Neely. “We were also able to go into contract with an air tanker, Tanker 95, the first one in Kansas. And that allows us to drop water from the sky and it’s been used multiple times.”
Another resource is the Federal Surplus Property Program in which property no longer in use by the federal government is turned into useful equipment and donated to a local fire department.
“All around, we’re hitting it harder,” said Neely. “We’ve helped the training, we’ve gathered folks into wildland fire task forces so now a group of people can come together and it can be six different departments helping fight a fire instead of one.”
Prescribed Burn Program
Part of that initiative is what led to the Prescribed Burn Program. The PBA is a group of landowners/managers that organize, start and control intentional fires in order to restore the Kansas grassland.
“We’ve seen an increase in the amount of burns in this area since we’ve started the association,” said CJ Blew, part owner and operator of Blew Partnership and member of the Ninnescah Valley PBA. “People feel safer about executing a burn where in the past people were afraid to burn because they didn’t have enough help.”
PBA’s are eligible for burn workshops and equipment such as trailers, radios and water pumps to encourage safer burning practices, because Kansas has to keep lighting fires.
“A century and a half of fire suppression mentality has been very detrimental,” said Dusty Tacha, a Natural Resources Conservation Service Rangeland Management Specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “You took a system that relied on fire and you completely removed fire and that allowed woody plant species to encroach.”
Part of the reason the wildfires were able to blaze strongly in 2016 and 2017 was because some of those areas hadn’t been burned in 60+ years so it became a forest fire, which is harder to control.
The wildfires caused immense damage, but they did allow for a clean slate.
“The silver lining of the wildfire in 2016 was it was like hitting the reset button on some of the invasive species that we had, like cedar trees,” said CJ Blew.
Stewards of the land
CJ Blew and his brother Russell run a cow-calf operation across 19,000 acres in Kansas. Last year, they were finalists for the Environmental Stewardship Award Program for being outstanding land stewards in the cattle industry.
“A lot of old timers couldn’t believe that creeks and streams running that they’d never seen before because the cedar trees were so bad, caused by mismanagement and years and years of neglect,” he said.
Before settlement, fires ignited by Native Americans and lightning maintained the Kansas prairies, allowing the native grasses to thrive. Today only 4 percent of prairie remains in North America.
“That’s what we’re trying to accomplish with fire,” said CJ Blew. “We’re trying to get it back to how it was. This ecosystem has evolved over eons of time. There’s a reason that this native grass thrives and does as well as it does here.”
Fire has several different roles in benefiting Kansas prairies, including removing invasive plant species that aren’t native to the ecosystem and restoring nutrients to the grass.
“We’re beef cattle producers, so it’s important to us,” said CJ Blew. “If man hadn’t touched this what would it be like? We feel like we can utilize our beef cattle to mimic what the bison herds used to be like so we can be closer to what it was like before man messed with it.”
When areas go 60 years without being burned, as they did prior to the 2016 wildfire, they’re more likely to be a forest fire than a grass fire.
“We’d like to use prescribed fire opposed to wildfires,” said Russell Blew. “Every prescribed fire that we put out on the range is decreasing the chance of wildfire because we’re decreasing the fuel load out there.”
The PBA allows for group discernment as to what should be burned each year in the state of Kansas and how it can be done safely.
“We prescribe burn when conditions are not as gnarly because that’s when wildfires happen,” said Tacha of the Agriculture Department. “And PBA’s are a great vehicle to get that done.”
Jasmine Pankratz is a University of Kansas senior from Abbyville, Kan., studying journalism.