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A new Kansas tool helps you understand wildfire risk at your address – and how to lessen it

Firefighters and Hutchinson Community College students studying wildland firefighting hustle to create a firebreak at Scott Lake State Park last April during annual training organized by the Kansas Forest Service.
David Condos
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Kansas News Service
Firefighters and Hutchinson Community College students studying wildland firefighting hustle to create a firebreak at Scott Lake State Park last April during annual training organized by the Kansas Forest Service.

Wildfires have become more common in Great Plains states. City outskirts and rural areas where cedars spread aggressively face some of the highest risks.

This story is part of NPR's Climate Solutions Week

In March of 2016, the Anderson Creek fire set a grim state record by burning about 280,000 acres in south-central Kansas.

Just one year later, this Kansas record changed again when more than 460,000 acres burned in the Starbuck fire farther west.

Large wildfires have become much more common on the Great Plains in recent decades.

In Kansas, risks are particularly high on the outskirts of some cities, as well as in rural areas of the state with aggressively spreading tree and shrub species that intensify grassland blazes.

But Kansans can take steps to protect themselves and their property.

And now they can type their addresses into a new online tool from the Kansas Forest Service — kansaswildfirerisk.org — to better understand the danger that a wildfire could break out near their home, ranch, farm or business.

The risk of that varies greatly across the state.

Take the proliferation of homes with several acres of land each at the fringes of suburbia. Or the popularity among city dwellers and out-of-staters of buying their own slice of rural Kansas for deer hunting.

These trends can increase wildfire risks in those areas because some landowners don’t have the resources or knowledge to control problematic vegetation. Others may only visit their properties when it’s time to bag a whitetail, and don’t stick around to manage the land.

“I’m not knocking hobby farms, but if you buy them, you’ve got to manage them,” said Mark Neely, the Kansas Forest Service’s fire management officer. “All sorts of bad things start growing in there.”

Those bad things include, most notably, the eastern red cedars that are spreading fast across the Great Plains and that can launch fountains of dangerous embers high into the air when they catch fire in dry conditions.

<i>The new Wildfire Risk Explorer shows extreme and high risk of wildfire in red and orange, respectively. A large swath of land to the north and east of Hutchinson (in Reno, Rice, McPherson and Harvey counties) faces significant risks.</i>
Wildfire Risk Explorer
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Kansas Forest Service
The new Wildfire Risk Explorer shows extreme and high risk of wildfire in red and orange, respectively. A large swath of land to the north and east of Hutchinson (in Reno, Rice, McPherson and Harvey counties) faces significant risks.

The outskirts of Hutchinson, for example, face significant wildfire risk. So do rural areas north and east of that city in Reno County and three adjacent counties, because of a confluence of factors including widespread cedar invasion, Neely said.

“A massive amount of fires happen there,” he said. “Really big ones.”

Using the new tool

Kansaswildfirerisk.org features an interactive map that combines the frequency of past wildfires with the amount of combustible fuel in an area to pinpoint trouble spots.

It lets users download a report specific to their home address or another location, and offers recommendations that would help keep flames at bay if a wildfire were to sweep the area.

Standard steps for homeowners include allowing only scattered trees immediately around your house and removing any dead plants. Keeping the roof and gutters clear of leaves and needles is similarly important.

The tool represents a yearslong effort to combine satellite imagery with on-the-ground research.

The Flint Hills and some other rural areas stand out on the map. So do the edges of population centers, which professionals call the “wildland-urban interface.”

These outskirts bring humans and their combustible property — from outbuildings and paint cans to propane tanks — into close proximity with more vegetation and less fire-thwarting pavement.

The changing fire risk

In late 2021, flames swept across more than 120,000 acres of Russell, Ellis, Osborne and Rooks counties. Scattered blazes burned thousands of acres elsewhere across western Kansas at the same time.

These fires struck in mid-December — not a time of year when firefighters traditionally fight wildfires.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked back three decades and found a fivefold increase in how much land burns annually in large wildfires on the Great Plains.

Homes on the outskirts of Manhattan overlook a draw full of eastern red cedars and prairie. Houses on the edges of towns and cities generally face higher risks of wildfire. (Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service)
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
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Kansas News Service
Homes on the outskirts of Manhattan overlook a draw full of eastern red cedars and prairie. Houses on the edges of towns and cities generally face higher risks of wildfire. (Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service)

Their findings hit print just a few months after the Starbuck fire and other blazes collectively charred more than 2 million acres of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas during a dangerously dry and windy March.

Firefighters and scientists can rattle off an array of changes that have increased the potential for wildfires in the Midwest and on the Great Plains — and their intensity when they happen.

After wresting control of the region from Native Americans, descendents of European settlers suppressed fire. Native Americans hadn’t just allowed fires to occur, they used them purposefully for a variety of reasons, including maintaining prairie habitat and hunting game.

Over the past century in particular, people dotted the landscape with ever more buildings. They planted large numbers of cedars to create windbreaks and lost control of their spread.

Combustible material has mushroomed even as the use of controlled fires has disappeared across much of the Great Plains. Ranches, primarily in the Flint Hills, offer a notable exception.

Global warming could make the situation worse.

Scientists say climate change has caused more of the continent’s middle to become drier in recent decades — a process called aridification that will continue to spread eastward and bring more droughts to Kansas.

At the same time, higher carbon dioxide levels in the air may be giving those trees and shrubs that intensify grassland wildfires an extra edge over the prairie grasses they’re invading.

In addition to endangering residents and firefighters, wildfires in the middle of the country can easily rack up many millions of dollars in damage to homes, farms, ranch fences and other property.

They can kill hundreds — or in the case of the Starbuck and other March 2017 blazes — thousands of livestock animals.

This row of eastern red cedars caught fire in Manhattan in July, likely because a squirrel or other animal got electrocuted on the wires above them. The fire department raced to extinguish the blaze. Nearby homes, such as those directly behind the trees, did not sustain damage.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
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Kansas News Service
This row of eastern red cedars caught fire in Manhattan in July, likely because a squirrel or other animal got electrocuted on the wires above them. The fire department raced to extinguish the blaze. Nearby homes, such as those directly behind the trees, did not sustain damage.

Beyond these most dramatic examples, Kansas counts thousands of wildfires each year. Most never make regional and national headlines, thanks to the hard work of firefighters and factors such as weather and fuel breaks. But they still wreak damage and risk lives.

What else can be done?

The Kansas Forest Service hopes the tool will help public agencies, landowners and private companies such as utilities identify the areas of greatest risk.

The information can help firefighting agencies and communities concentrate their mitigation efforts in places that would have the most impact.

Landowners losing grassland to trees and shrubs can contact prescribed fire associations to explore the option of using controlled fire and potentially get help and resources. The wildfire risk tool can help you identify your local association.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has also launched an initiative to help ranchers in parts of Kansas and neighboring states save prairie from aggressive tree and shrub species.

And the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has created an eastern red cedar literacy project to help people understand that humans have allowed these trees – which are actually a species of juniper that is native to the region but once existed in much smaller numbers — to vastly expand their presence and impacts.

Instructions for the new wildfire risk tool

Click “Launch risk explorer,” then select “basic” to use the tool without creating an account. If you’re a professional (such as an emergency manager) seeking more in-depth information, select “advanced” and create an account. Either option is free.

A map of Kansas will appear, with the highest-risk areas shown in red. Zoom in or type your address into the search bar in the upper righthand corner to view your immediate area.

Click “Download report” to receive information about your local wildfire risk and tips to protect your property.

The Kansas Forest Service will offer training on the tool’s advanced functions in Wichita and Manhattan on Oct. 10 and 12, respectively.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.