A brushfire set in order to rejuvenate prairie burns in Mayetta, Kan., near Topeka. (Angie Babbit/Flickr)
As wildfires rage across Colorado and New Mexico, one has to wonder if farm and ranch land in nearby Midwestern states could be fertile ground for wildfires.
Vaughn Lorenson, director of emergency management in rural Stanton (Kan.) County, says that anyone who works the land is always conscious of fires.
“It is always in the front of [farmers’] minds,” Lorenson said. “They always think about it.”
This year has already been hard on many farmers due to unseasonably warm temperatures and far-below-average rainfall in April and May across the Midwest. In some places that has created, in essence, thousands of acres of kindling for wildfires. Walter Fick, associate professor of range management at Kansas State University, says the fire risk this year is elevated.
“Normally during the growing season the pastures are relatively green and they are not going to burn very well, but if they did not green up or it continues to be dry, then that greatly increases the probability of having wildfires,” Fick said.
Though we often hear of huge wildfires in the Southwest or in the Rocky Mountain states, firefighters in every state battle wildfires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Iowa saw 561 fires encompassing 2,145 acres on wildlands in 2011; Kansas had 99 fires on 111,128 acres; Missouri saw 2,732 fires on 55,395 acres; and Nebraska recorded 80 fires on 29,643 acres.
In March 2011 in Stanton County, near Johnson City, firefighters battled a devestating wildfire. The fire spread to an estimated 38,000 acres causing damage to fields and burning down barns and other farm structures. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback even declared a State of Disaster Emergency due to the fire.
The most common type of wildfire that occurs in places like rural Kansas is a “brush fire,” which are common on flat ground with vegetation smaller than trees, such as wheat or other grasses. Wildfires have numerous causes including lightning strikes, humans failing to discard cigarettes properly and even spontaneous combustion. (Hay, among other crops, has the ability to spontaneously combust due to the fermentation of bacteria inside it, releasing heat.)
May was recorded as Kansas’ fourth driest on record with a measly 1.63 inches of rain over the month, less than half the average rainfall. Missouri, Iowa and other Midwestern states faced “flash droughts” as well. June has been particularly dry so far in western Nebraska.
“When we get these thunderstorms moving through,” Lorenson said, “with no rain and lots of lightning and strong winds, you even get more concerned.”
Lorenson said one basic way farmers can take protect their property is to plow around it several times, though he said not enough farmers take such precautions.
While controlling the weather is out of the question, safety precautions cannot only save valuable farm and ranch land, but lives as well. For more information on wildfire safety visit the U.S. Fire Administration's website.