Anderson Creek Wildfire: Devastating loss, ecological challenge, societal challenge, glimpse of history, revitalization

I have been captivated by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Partly because I was in that region of Kansas this last summer and met several ranchers from the area. My thoughts and prayers go out to those ranchers, though I barely know them, I am concerned about their safety and livelihood. The other part of my captivation is, well, it’s fire and fire captivates me.

Many you may not even be aware of the Anderson Creek Wildfire, but it is getting plenty of news coverage in my part of the country. The wildfire is now being reported as the largest in Kansas history (at least recorded) and among the largest in the U.S. The fire began last Tuesday (3/22) in Wood County in northwest Oklahoma and quickly spread north into central, southern Kansas into Comanche County pushed by 30 mph winds with gusts to 60 mph, then with a westerly wind shift into Barber County. It continued to burn through Saturday (3/26) until mostly extinguished by a blanket of snow on Sunday (3/27). Cities as far away as Memphis and St. Louis reported smelling smoke from the fire. Estimates have the size of the fire at roughly 620 square miles or about 400,000 acres.

Figure 1 Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Figure 1: Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, 3/24/16, 11:42 AM. Oklahoma Forestry Services.

 

This area of Kansas is known as the Red Hills or Gypsum Hills. The terrain is characterized by gently rolling plains to rolling hills and mesas heavily dissected by rugged canyons. The flatter more level ground, where enough soil exists, is mostly dryland wheat with some irrigated crops and the rest is mixed grass prairie rangeland. Much of it heavily infested with red cedar. Based on this description you can imagine how difficult it would be to fight wildfire in this type of terrain with a heavy fuel load. Firefighter reports were of an active fire line 30 to 40 miles long.

Figure 2 Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas

Figure 2: Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas.

 

Devastating Loss

At this time there haven’t been any estimates of livestock loss. It is known some livestock has been lost, but how many? Ranchers have been too busy trying to save their structures and fences, and really haven’t had a chance to examine the damage to their herds. In other cases, they are still trying to roundup their cattle. Amazingly though, there have been numerous accounts of livestock surviving the fire, with reports of cattle or bison standing in scorched pastures in the aftermath, apparently no worse for the wear. Some are speculating that the new calf crop hasn’t fared so well, choosing to hunker down rather than escape the fire. Critical infrastructure, primarily fence, has been one of the biggest casualties. One rancher ventured to guess thousands of miles of fence have been destroyed; if fence posts were wood, and in the fire’s path, they’re gone.

Ecological Challenge

Almost immediately the Kansas Livestock Association sent out a call for hay donations to help support ranchers who lost all their hay or forage to the wildfire. Ranchers and farmers, being who they are, responded in a big way; by Saturday KLA called off the request stating they had enough hay and were running out of storage.

As notable and generous as donated hay is, and I’m sure the ranchers who need it are grateful, there is an underlying concern. Throughout the majority of the burned area is native rangeland, what if donated hay is from Caucasian or old world bluestem pastures, or fescue pastures or contaminated with sericea lespedeza? Where that hay is fed those sites will be contaminated by the introduced species and range quality will be diminished. A short-term solution will lead to a long-term problem.

Perhaps ranchers can consider using source identified hay, where they know they won’t be contaminating their rangeland. Another alternative would be to utilize fields of wheat in the area until the range grows enough to put cattle back. Sure, it is likely the wheat crop will be lost but the value of keeping rangeland quality should be worth that consideration. It is also important to remember that this time of year the rangeland will be greening up within days following this wildfire and that grazing could be possible within just a few weeks. Admittedly it’s not the best scenario for grass health, but one that with proper management (long-term rest) following defoliation will provide sustainable forage.

Societal Challenge

Drive through the Gyp Hills and it is obvious fire has been excluded from much of this landscape for years from the scattered red cedars to outright cedar forests covering the landscape. Prescribed fire is just beginning to gain acceptance in the Gyp Hills of Kansas. In the last few years the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association has formed and has been slowly converting prescribed fire disciples. And though they are believers, the Gyp Hills PBA is still only burning 10,000 to 15,000 acres annually. One of their largest hurdles has been the local fire departments. I am fearful this wildfire will set back the recent advances in gaining acceptance for prescribed fire. In addition to inappropriately reinforcing difficult attitudes with fire departments, a wildfire of this magnitude is likely to cause those fearful or uninformed to dig in their heels. Hopefully that isn’t the situation and a case can be made for prescribed fire being beneficial and one way to help minimize these types of catastrophic events.

Glimpse of History

As I monitored the daily progression of this wildfire I couldn’t help but think of how landscape scale burns like this happened regularly before man tried to suppress fire. And it was these exact conditions, low humidity – high winds, that propelled and accelerated fire across the landscape. These historic fires would burn for days and consume hundreds of thousands of acres before being naturally extinguished by precipitation or loss of fuel.

Revitalization

If I could offer anything to the ranchers affected by the wildfire, I offer the assurance that their range will be better. They will see greater forage growth this summer, better animal performance and better range health. It may not seem too positive right now, but give it a few weeks and, aside from the resources needed to repair fences, things will be better than they have seen in years. Killing the cedars alone will result in millions of gallons of available water for forage growth and range recovery. Studies have shown a single cedar tree consumes 33 gallons of water a day. To make math simple, over a 100-day growing season that is 330 gallons. It only takes killing 3,030 cedar trees to save a million gallons of water. I can guarantee you multiples of 3,030 cedar trees were killed by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Springs that haven’t run in years will once again. Ponds will fill up and creeks will flow. Grasses will grow and animals will flourish.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

P.S. Anderson Creek Wildfire, thank you for the great sunsets.

Bird's eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

Bird’s eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

 

 

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