Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles about the Top 10 local news stories of 2017.
As the Kansan earth freezes and the first snowflakes of the year begin to fall in Garden City, it’s safe to say winter has begun. But while grasses dry along with the freeze, it’s important to remember that just last March much of southwest Kansas was engulfed in flames with the onset of spring as temperatures warmed and the ground thawed.
Lane County residents can testify to that. The Lane County fires that raged for almost two weeks in March and left much of the yawning, desiccated prairie resembling a moonscape also garnered the scorched area an apt nickname from area local Max Prose: “hellfire and damnation.”
As such, the fires that devoured more than 18,000 acres in southern Lane County and 39,000 more in Hodgeman and Ness counties made The Telegram’s No. 5 local news story for 2017.
It started on March 6 when a great black wall of smoke rose up mid-afternoon to greet the horizon near the intersection of County Road 80 and Turkey Red Road. That first day, the fire that spanned 13 miles from east to west and 5 miles from north to south was already clocked as the largest grassfire in the county that year, enveloping big swaths of farmland and grassland in flames.
But simply being the biggest of the year couldn’t soothe the inferno’s appetite. With gusts reaching 60 mph and heaps of dry forage grass built up from what eventually became a wet spring and summer period in 2016, all southwest Kansas needed was a little sunshine, some dry air and a stray spark to become a full-fledged tinderbox.
Mary Knapp, Kansas’ assistant state climatologist with K-State’s Department of Agronomy, explained that extensive vegetative growth during previous summers, followed by a dry winter and combined with low humidity and high winds, resulted in “active fire behavior.”
Contributing to that recipe for disaster, Knapp explained, is that Kansas is located in what tends to be a thermal boundary for air masses, meaning a pressure system is often moving through the area.
“In this particular case, we were getting downsloping winds off the Rockies,” Knapp said of the conditions on March 6. She added that those winds accounted for the severe gusts, as well as atmospheric compression that both raised the temperature and dried out the air “very quickly.”
Knapp summed up the disaster’s three main ingredients thusly: “low humidity, warm temperatures and strong winds.”
Lane County and its neighbors weren’t the only counties blighted by a plague of fire last spring. A total of two-dozen Kansas counties including Clark, Comanche, Reno, Finney and Gray were casualties in the total for devastation that reached about 700,000 acres across the state, with many more acres in Texas and Oklahoma, killing many thousands of livestock animals, most of which were cattle.
The infernos, while record-breaking in scope, were hardly unprecedented in fury. Just last year in March, the Anderson Creek Fire consumed approximately 400,000 acres of prairie in Kansas and Oklahoma.
This year in Lane County, Prose lost his home, two-thirds of his 3,000-acre farm, his cowshed and much of his fencing. After nearly losing his life as well, he recalled an exchange he had with a neighbor.
“One guy says, ‘Well, God was watching out for you,” Prose said. “And I said, ‘Well, he operates on an awfully tight schedule, because I was just a few seconds from being burned.”
More problematic than the fires may have been the lasting effects facing farmers — both those who took the burn head on and those who were initially spared. With loose dirt blowing in the wind and generating static electricity through a complex exchange of dust particles, farmers unaffected by the inferno stood to see damage to their wheat yields from the aftermath.
At the time, Prose’s wheat crop was already yellowing as a result of the dirt, dust and silt. All he and other farmers could do was keep working the land while attempting to contain the problem.
Walter Fick, a rangeland management specialist at K-State Research and Extension, said agricultural yields after a fire all depends on how land is managed prior to a fire and what the conditions are like in the following weeks.
The March fires occurred near the beginning of the growing season, meaning soil moisture might have been good enough to mitigate the damages to the land. Still, the biggest problem facing farmers, Fick said, wasn’t necessarily the arability of farmland but rather the elimination of many dormant forage grasses grazed on by livestock.
As for the wheat crop, Fick said the fires wouldn’t have had much of an effect, as long as the wheat hadn’t jointed. When wheat joints, it begins its reproductive development, and with the growing season still in its early stages, Fick contended that the heat would have only damaged the wheat if it were further along in the process.
The rain eventually returned to southwest Kansas, bringing moisture along with it and giving farmers some much needed relief.
Prose’s cattle were among the lucky ones that survived the fire, and with plans to rebuild his home, Prose said in March that people from all over the region had brought donations to assist in the recovery process facing locals.
“We’re going to rebuild the house that burned in the same spot,” Prose said, estimating the cost of reconstruction at around $200,000. He said then that he had high hopes for his crops, all things considered, and that he wouldn’t plant any shrubs around his house this time around.
His home would have been spared if not for a nearby rose bush that gave the flames a way into his home, showing just how big a role something so small can play in the grand scheme of devastation.
But despite his losses, Prose said Lane County residents maintained what by now can only be considered a dark sense of humor.
“We have a lot of humor around here,” Prose said. “We live half a mile south of the intersection of Wichita Road and Road 50, so we tell people now we live half a mile south of hellfire and damnation.”
May that devil sleep for many years to come.