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One Year After Record Wildfire, Kansas Braces Against Strong, Dry Winds

A large grassfire burned more than 6,000 acres in Reno County in March 2017.
A large grassfire burned more than 6,000 acres in Reno County in March 2017.

One year and nearly a half million torched acres after the Starbuck wildfire, strong winds blow across a parched Kansas landscape.

In some ways, last year’s experience showed how man-made systems fell short of handling natural disaster.

As March roars in with another dangerous fire season, lessons from 2017 will be tested and Kansas could learn whether it’s better prepared now.

The National Weather Service says Kansas is at a critical risk for wildfires this week. Strong winds and dry air make a bad situation in southwestern Kansas worse. Officials worry that any new fire in the next few days might prove uncontrollable.

In the meantime, the Kansas Forest Service and the Kansas Division of Emergency Management have been evaluating their performance. And planning for a possible repeat.

“I feel better prepared this year than going into last year,” said Rodney Redinger, fire training and operation specialist with the Kansas Forest Service.

For starters, officials say they now better coordinate and communicate between the various agencies involved.

“You know there’s no reason in the Kansas Forest Service making 25 phone calls and the Division of Emergency Management making 25 phone calls to the same departments,” Redinger said.

Still, Redinger said, more money to fight the increasing problem of wildfires would make the most difference. Especially as climate change begins to increase the state’s risk of wildfire.

“I don’t want to say that it’s going to become the new norm, but at least for the foreseeable future the trend is that way,” he said.

Devan Tucking of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management said the state is also working more on community outreach.

“We want people to keep in mind, you know, clear within 30 feet of your house,” she said. “Clean out your gutters. Do what you can so that if a fire does start there’s a better chance that that home won’t be compromised.”

The National Interagency Fire Center predicts wildfire risk will remain above normal for much of Kansas through May.

Brian Grimmett, based at KMUW in Wichita, is a reporter focusing on the environment and energy for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

Copyright 2018 KCUR 89.3