Archive for Thursday, March 2, 2006

Dry conditions call for county burn ban

March 2, 2006

Firefighting officials are raising the alarm about grass fires, which have been breaking out with abnormal frequency due to an unusually dry winter.

There were at least 14 grass fires over the weekend, plus a 14-acre fire Monday afternoon that fire officials described as "out of control."

To combat the spate of fires, Douglas County officials ordered a burn ban Monday morning, and will likely keep it in place all week.

With no rain in the forecast until the weekend, fire departments are bracing for the possibility of more fires this week with or without a ban on outdoor fires.

"Everything is ripe for ignition," Douglas County Fire Chief Mark Bradford said. "It isn't going to be any better" until it rains or snows.

Local fire departments made the recommendation for a burn ban Monday morning before the Douglas County Commission met to decide it.

"The conditions are pretty apparent to us all," County Commissioner Charles Jones said.

The conditions have been apparent elsewhere, too. Osage County banned outdoor burning this week, and several other counties have banned fires over the winter.

Dry conditions across state

Much of the state is just as dry as Douglas County, Kansas State Fire Fighters Assn. Vice President Christine Standard said Monday. As of now, Kansas counties fall under one of two burn risk levels: high or extremely high.

"Normally, we get some moisture over the winter," Standard said. "It's been especially dry, especially easy" for grass to ignite and fire to spread.

So far, Lawrence and the county have been lucky, Bradford said, because there has been no loss of buildings or life.

Several grass fires have threatened homes and other structures, but a combination of the right winds and plenty of water for firehoses have prevented fires from spreading to buildings.

Last week, a grass fire near new development around Stone Creek crept near homes but never seriously threatened the structures.

But Bradford said a quick change of the wind could have produced different and more damaging results.

"We could have had a quicker spread," he said. "It can change in a matter of seconds."

Elsewhere in the region, uncontrolled grass fires have left buildings and homes smoldering. Unless the weather changes drastically, Bradford said, the fuel for the fires -- huge stretches of dry grass -- will only grow.

"Any time you continue to have weather like this, it's a matter of when," he said.

Bradford said the rash of grass fires hadn't strained the county's firefighting resources much. It takes water and fuel to respond to a 10-acre fire, but Bradford said extra staffing at fire stations hadn't been needed.

The only change the department considers when answering an alarm, Bradford said, is the amount of first-responders sent to a scene.

"The wind is going to be our key factor," he said.

The more wind there is, the faster a grass fire can spread and the more trucks and firefighters are needed to corral it.

Manpower concerns

For smaller volunteer departments around the state, manpower has been a problem, Standard, from the KSFFA, said.

For those departments, some firefighters come in on their days off to watch the station while a whole shift of firefighters goes out to battle a grass blaze.

And for volunteer departments, an extra ration of grass fires can hurt budgets.

"It ups their expenses they might not have budgeted for," Standard said.

Grass and brush fires also can pose problems fire departments don't typically have to deal with, Standard said.

When a fire spreads over several acres, the flames may cover more than a single firefighting jurisdiction. And big grass fires can require traveling farther and searching harder for the blaze than a structure fire might.

"Just try and stick with the ban," Bradford said. "Be careful."

A wet spell to cool the spate of fires is something forecasters say could happen as soon as Friday. Fire officials are hoping the forecast is on the mark.

"Do you know any good rain dances?" asked Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Don Haynes.

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