High fire danger: What it means and how to stay safe

Illustration by Zoe Schumacher | Collegian Media Group

Riley County declared high fire danger from March 15-20. Any time this is announced, burning on farmland is forbidden to protect citizens from spreading fires, Vivienne Leyva, Riley County public information officer, said.

“This is a designation that we get information on from the National Weather Service,” Leyva said. “They send out notifications that fire danger is high or a red flag warning, depending on the severity. … It just means that if a fire started outside it would spread and become dangerous very quickly. We use that in particular to inform whether or not people are allowed to burn outside, like pasture burns that people have to get permits for.”

John Martens, Riley County deputy fire chief, said high fire danger days are decided when two or more weather conditions combine and line up to create an unsafe environment for burning. 

“Certain conditions such as high wind, low humidity, dry fuels or dormant fuels, which is when grass gets brown, what that does is it allows fire to burn a lot quicker, ignites a lot easier and spreads aggressively,” Martens said. “When we say fire danger is high, it is normally all three of those conditions present, or at least two.”

During a high fire danger day spreading is more likely and fires are harder to contain.

“Throughout the year when the grass is green it can barely burn because it is so full of moisture,” Martens said. “In the season lately, especially with the wind, it picks up and carries very quickly and aggressively, kind of like a cascading effect. The more energy the fire has it just keeps fueling almost like it creates its own weather.”

Martens said during high fire danger, no-burn days are announced and conditions fluctuate daily. 

“We usually do it by the day because Kansas is always changing,” Martens said. “Today [March 22] is nothing like Monday. Today you might not even get anything to burn because it is so wet and humid, versus Monday it was the opposite. It was dry and windy. It is day by day in Kansas.”

With Kansas weather always changing, Martens said no-burn days can be announced midday. 

“In the morning, it might be great but in the afternoon it might be terrible so sometimes we change that direction midday and the whole purpose is for public safety,” Martens said. “We know that a lot of ag producers want and need to burn. … We want to give them these opportunities as often as we can, it just needs to be in a safe time to do it.”

Martens said no-burn days also prevent rekindling.

“Rekindle means a fire gets going again after the owner thinks it is out,” Martens said. “So they burned a little bit and it looks calm, and they think it will be out by tomorrow, but tomorrow is a bad day and oxygen feeds fire, so if there is unburned area nearby it won’t take much for a reignition. Depending on the day, this could be a huge catastrophe in minutes.”

Leyva said signing up to receive alerts from Riley County is the best way to stay aware and safe. 

“As a general practice we recommend that people have at least three ways to be notified of severe weather because it can happen so suddenly, and it is a big threat, especially in Kansas,” Levya said. “So if you have a weather app, maybe a weather radio and you sign up for these notifications, then, just in case one isn’t working, you will have another way to be notified.”

(Graphic by Catherine Eldridge | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: Removed some excess text at the bottom of the story, and added “Fire Safety at Home” graphic.