The impact of the wildfires in Kansas that started March 6 and continued for a week will be felt for months if not years as producers go through the recovery process.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is also evaluating the damage to state parks and fishing lakes as well as to breeding areas in the burn areas. The Dodge City KDWPT office had to be evacuated because of the fire.
The entire Sandhills State Park wildlife area was completely burned. There was also fire damage at Rooks State Fishing Lake, Clark State Fishing Lake and in the Army Corps of Engineers area around Wilson Lake. The fire was stopped before it reached the state park area, said KDWPT Fisheries Director Doug Nygren.
The fire is not expected to have much impact on Kansas lakes, rivers and streams. Where cedar trees were burned, it might bring up the water table because cedars use a lot of water, Nygren said.
There aren’t too many streams in counties hardest hit by the fire. Where streams and lakes do exist in fire areas, the soil is now pretty unstable. There could be some blowing sand issues if the area doesn’t get enough rain and erosion issues if too much rain comes too quickly.
“It could be a bad thing for streams or ponds,” said Aaron Baugh, KDWPT area wildlife biologist. “What we need is a nice gradual rain.”
The full impact on wildlife may take a long time to evaluate. There is immediate impact but the long term could be worse if the area doesn’t get moisture. Grass tends to rebound quickly but if it doesn’t get moisture, the impact on wildlife could be fairly significant, Baugh said.
A lot of animals probably survived the fires but the grass cover in some nesting and feeding areas is completely gone.
Nesting takes place in April, May and June with May being the biggest nesting month. If a nesting area is destroyed, the birds will have to move to another area and renest and that will likely result in a small clutch or group of birds.
The fire burned nesting areas, destroyed areas that supported food and made the area more vulnerable to predators. It’s too early in the year to say what the impact will be on the pheasant and quail populations. It will definitely have a negative impact locally in the fire area, Baugh said.
If the burn was complete, the impact on populations will be greater than in areas where there was a patchy burn. Birds might be able to stay in those areas.
In Clark County where from two thirds to three quarters of the county burned, it will have implications on the prairie chicken populations. Prairie chickens were booming (mating call) on their leks (mating grounds) the day after the fire. Right now there is no cover in the burned out areas so if the area doesn’t get rain soon, the birds will have to move and find another nesting habitat. This could make predators a greater factor, Baugh said.
Migrating birds, such as geese, ducks, cranes and other migrating birds have already moved on and were not impacted.
Besides birds, the burned areas will also impact food supplies for deer and pronghorn antelope. The rebound all depends on moisture this spring and summer.
Abundant rain was partly the cause of the fire in the first place, said Mary Knapp, state climatologist at Kansas State University.
Ashland in Clark County, that suffered the biggest fire, received 3.14 inches of rain from Jan. 1 to March 9. The normal average for that time period is 1.63 inches. That produced a lot of vegetation that became a lot of fuel and fuel that can dry out very quickly if it does rain.
One hour fuels are grasses and so on that can get dry enough to burn just one hour after they get wet. There was a lot of one hour fuel in the burn areas in Kansas, Knapp said.
Other fuels take longer to dry out. Branches from one inch to two inches thick are considered 10 hour fuels because it takes them 10 hours to dry out to a point they can burn after they get wet. Tree trunks take 1,000 hours to get dry enough to burn after getting wet.
In areas where there were shelter belts and tree rows, there was plenty of fuel. It takes longer to get branches and trees to start burning but it also takes longer to put them out because of the amount of fuel.
Because the rain produced so much fuel, it doesn’t take a drought to create a fire danger but it does take dry fuel, low humidity and high wind.
Low humidity was definitely a factor in the fires. Relative humidities got down into the single digits and that’s desert dry, Knapp said.
Recorded relative humidities included Meade-6 percent, Satanta-8 percent, Cullison (site of a burr fire at the cotton gin) had 5 percent on March 7.
A cold front came through the area and produced some very strong winds. At Hutchinson, the wind direction kept shifting but not 180 degrees so it kept pushing the fire towards new fuel.
The area will continue to have fire danger possibility until the green up in April and May. Rain fall will be a key factor in that recovery. Clark County average yearly rainfall is 22.7 inches a year. Medicine Lodge, that was impacted by the Anderson Creek fire in 2016, gets 28.8 inches a year.
That extra six inches of rain gave Medicine Lodge a better chance of recovery than Clark County. It all depends on how much rain they get, Knapp said.