The Great Plains are burning. Get used to it.
In Kansas alone, pre-spring fires have already raged across 630,000-plus acres, killed thousands of cattle, torched scores of homes, displaced families and exhausted firefighters rallied from across the state.
Rain clouds remain on vacation. Winds continue to whip at the prairie — drying out areas parched by a dehydrated winter — with the potential to swirl sparks in any direction and stoke fires once they catch.
The fact that recent Februaries, Marches and Aprils brought more rain actually makes this year all the more dangerous. The growing trend of wetter springs meant more growth of grasses, brush and trees that lie across Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle like tinder for a bonfire awaiting a match.
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
By mid-week, firefighters appeared to mostly corral some of the galloping fires like the one that forced evacuation of a high-end subdivision in Hutchinson.
Yet embers smoldered. This isn’t over.
“There’s still lots and lots of fuel on the ground,” said Mary Knapp, Kansas’ assistant state climatologist.
It’s not just the toasted plains of Reno County in central Kansas or Clark and Comanche counties just north of the Oklahoma border.
“It could easily be Wyandotte County soon enough,” Knapp said.
Or think of the thousands of acres at the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto, she said. “There’s lots of grass out there. It’s dry. The wind’s been blowing.”
For those who lost their homes, or their herds, the fires are world changers. Whether the fires represent a broader change in the world we know — a this-season or seasons-to-come jolt to the cattle trade, a sign of climate shifts that make grazing land more regularly flammable — may not become clear for a decade or more.
The cattle losses don’t take enough meat out of the market to move the needle on prices, even if they can devastate individual ranchers. Climate specialists see at least the possibility that long-term changes in weather patterns could ultimately make western Kansas grasslands burn more often, and with more fervor. That, in turn, could make them less suited to raising Angus.
“Some of these ranchers took very significant hits. Most of them will survive, even though it won’t be easy,” said Scarlett Hagins, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Livestock Association. “As a whole, it’s probably not going to alter the market.”
A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)
‘Just blew up’
More immediately, the fires burning now represent destruction and danger.
Eleven firefighters from Kansas City, Kan., went to Hutchinson on Monday in time to see a threatening fire erupt into a monster. The crew had been planning to start a 12-hour shift at 7 p.m., but they were called into action an hour or so early when flames on the north end of town got precisely the right, or wrong, blast of wind.
“Everything just kind of blew up,” said John Peterson, a senior deputy chief with the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department.
Firefighters accustomed to house and building fires, and the occasional western Wyandotte County grass fire, found themselves gawking at towering walls of flames. At one point, the so-called Highlands fire, named for a housing division built around a golf course on the edge of town, swallowed a square mile of ground in barely four minutes.
At times, Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas Army National Guard scooped up hundreds of gallons of water at a time from a golf course pond, dumped the contents on the fire and swung through the rinse-and-repeat process again.
But the fight on the ground that night pitted the Wyandotte crew alongside a small army of firefighters gathered from departments across the state against the blaze.
“Trucks stretched out as far as the eye could see,” Peterson said.
Tankers cycled from hydrants and back to the scene, filling up pickup “brush trucks” mobile enough to scurry over the sandy terrain and douse sections of the fire. It wasn’t until about 3 a.m. Tuesday that a seven-mile-long blaze eased down from the crisis that threatened to torch tens of millions of dollars’ worth of homes.
Through the hours, firefighters worked to keep homes from turning to ash, and coaxed anxious residents to get out of harm’s way.
Soot-covered and soaked after their run on the prairie, the Kansas City, Kan., crew talked about a middle-aged man nearly frozen about what to do. Stay at home to look after a lifetime of possessions, or heed the order to evacuate? A firefighter grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him and insisted: You have to leave. Now.
Finally, with his dog stowed in his pickup truck, the man drove off.
“He just looked at us,” said firefighter Scott Bennett, “and said, ‘Do what you can do, boys.’ ”
An annual thing?
Scenes like that appear likely to play out in the months to come, and perhaps more often in the decades ahead.
Experts say it’s likely too early to conclude the region’s climate has shifted in a way that could make wildfires more common. A few years of odd weather doesn’t mean a fire-stoking climate has yet taken hold.
Still, they allow for the possibility. Knapp, the climatologist, said the trend in recent years has brought wetter early-year months. In the years when that pattern holds, fires will be less common. But in the inevitable years when the snow doesn’t fall and rain clouds don’t debut until May, all the extra grass, bushes and trees that flourished from the years before becomes kindling for the next runaway prairie scorching.
“Then all you need is one dry, windy day …,” Knapp said.
Timing is everything. Spring has been arriving earlier in the Great Plains. But vegetation growing there evolved over millennia to survive winter by going dormant, turning from green to a more combustible brown. The triggers that bring it out of hibernation include things like exposure to sunlight. When spring temperatures arrive weeks early, as they have in recent decades, they come before the daylight hours have lengthened to signal grasses to wake up.
“You team that up with an inordinate number of high fire-danger days, like we’ve seen this year, and the stage is set for catastrophic events,” said Gary McManus, the state climatologist at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
The fire equation has been complicated, he said, by how people have managed the land. Aggressive firefighting disrupted the natural pattern of wildfires. With normal cycles suppressed, the landscape becomes blanketed in an unnaturally high amount of grasses, shrubs and trees that only burn with more vigor once they’re sparked.
Man has also brought in other things that burn with special intensity. The Eastern red cedar, native to the Atlantic coast, has become a sort of flora cockroach of the West. It saps water from native plants and crowds them out. And it produces a burn so hot, wildfire experts call it “Mother Nature’s Roman candle.”
Those factors help set the stage for mega-fires. The inferno storming across Clark and Comanche counties has burned more than 500,000 acres — making it the largest recorded in state history.
Much of the land across the vast western and southwestern stretches of Kansas is no good for farming — except for sections where expensive and increasingly difficult irrigation is practical. Instead, the crop is grass, harvested by grazing cattle.
Much of the region’s agricultural is dominated by cow-calf operations. This time of year, mama cows roam the land grazing on grasses and shrubs. They nurse calves that will go to feedlots when they grow to 500 to 600 pounds, and there they’ll be fattened on grain until they double in size and head to the slaughterhouse.
This season’s fires delivered a double whammy to ranchers — both the loss of cattle and the temporary destruction of grazing land.
Some lost entire herds. Others lost portions, but auction barns and agricultural economists report more than a dozen examples of cowboys who lost nearly 100-plus head of cattle.
“It’s literally worse than I ever could have imagined,” Clark County rancher Greg Gardiner told the Wichita Eagle. He guessed his loss at 500 cattle.
Those with insurance have begun the tedious process of documenting the charred carcasses. Some have deployed aerial drones to find the dead cattle scattered across the lonesome miles of prairie. Others have gone without insurance and will simply have to weather the losses.
Even where cattle survived, much of their grazing land looks today like blackened wasteland. In a few months, the grass could come back as strong as ever. But for now, farmers have been donating the bounty of recent years of bumper hay crops to tide over the cattle while they wait for grass to bounce back.
The fires create uncertainty for nearby feedlots. Some ranchers with burned pastures might send their steers and heifers to the pens earlier than usual. Others will have fewer cattle to deliver come late summer.
“Time will tell,” said Kenny Montgomery, the manager of Pratt (Kansas) Feeders, which cycles through some 100,000 cattle a year. “It will hit some areas pretty hard.”
Experts see the broader Midwestern and Western cattle industry as little changed by this year’s fires.
If the large fires become more the norm and less an aberration, things might change.
“That’s a big if,” said Glynn Tonsor, a livestock economist at Kansas State University. “But if it became regular, then at some point (ranchers) would stop their current practices. It’s pretty hard to make money if you’re only getting it through insurance payments.”
Meantime, the fight against the fire goes on. By Thursday, the fire that evacuated swaths of Hutchinson was 85 percent contained — meaning the battle was being won, even if the war remained not yet over.
“It feels like every day the weather report for the next day looks more promising” — less wind, more humidity — “until the next day comes and it’s drier and windier than the one before,” said Doug Hanen, the interim Hutchinson fire chief. “This thing is far from over.”
Michael Pearce of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this story.