Less than 70 percent of Kansas wildfires are reported. Here’s why:

Kansas’ recognition as a top fire state has long been overdue.

The state experiences at least 5,000 wildfires annually, which ranks it among the top five states for number of wildfire incidents in the country among the likes of Texas, Oregon, and Montana. Kansas is also a top prescribed burning state in acreage, with well over one million acres burned yearly, according to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

Despite this, Kansas is far from the first state many think of when wildfires are mentioned. A large reason for this, according to Kansas Forest Service Interim Fire Management Officer Eric Ward, is that wildfires have been chronically underreported throughout the state.

“The lack of reporting has been identified for years as a problem,” Ward said. “The problem is that, unlike many states, wildfires are nearly 100 percent a local responsibility.”

Kansas fire

The Kansas Governor’s Wildfire Task Force final report of 2023 estimated  that around 30 percent of the state’s wildfires go unreported annually. Ward attributed the underreporting to two aspects of the state: the lack of federally-owned land and the state’s designation as a “Home Rule” state.

In the nation, Kansas has the third-least amount of federally owned land compared with  privately owned land, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report. Only 253,919 acres of Kansas’ total 52,510,720 acreage, or 0.5 percent, is federally owned. The only other states with such a low federal land ownership are Connecticut and Iowa, both at 0.3 percent.

Additionally, Kansas has been a Home Rule state since 1961 by constitutional amendment, meaning that local jurisdictions, to an extent, have greater autonomy — and state interference in local affairs is limited. Kansas is also a “Dillon’s Rule” state, meaning that local governments only have powers that are explicitly assigned to them.

Kansas fire

Because of this combination, the duty of reporting usually falls to local jurisdictions, some of which fail to file the proper paperwork.

“[Kansas Forest Service] supports local fire departments as requested on major incidents, but as a home rule state, the local jurisdiction is still in charge, and responsible for reporting,” Ward said.

“With the vast majority of departments being small volunteer departments, some simply ignore the state law that requires reporting. And no one at any level of government wants to prosecute a local volunteer fire chief for not doing paperwork. So, many simply never get reported.”

Research suggests Kansas and other wildfire-prone states are projected to have 30 more days per year of extreme wildfire risk in the near future. To meet the current and future wildfire challenges, the state appointed a new State Fire Marshal last November and released a new wildfire risk tool last October. However, until wildfires are accurately reported in the state, Kansas won’t be getting the recognition of a top wildfire state that it deserves.

Kansas’ recognition as a top fire state has long been overdue.

The state experiences at least 5,000 wildfires annually, which ranks it among the top five states for number of wildfire incidents in the country among the likes of Texas, Oregon, and Montana. Kansas is also a top prescribed burning state in acreage, with well over one million acres burned yearly, according to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

Oregon IMTs and firefighters out for ice storm recovery

Western Oregon’s recent ice storm cleanup, after one of the worst winter storms in history, is now in the mop-up stage, and firefighters with the Oregon Department of Forestry have teamed up with the City of Springfield to help. For most of a week now, they’ve worked in the Thurston area of Springfield east of Eugene, clearing downed trees and sidewalks. A team of 14 started by clearing students’ paths to area schools.

“We noticed that right after the ice storm, they were using the streets to walk because they weren’t able to access the sidewalk,” ODF forester Kolten Vickers told Albert James with KEZI News in Eugene . “So we started around schools, and now we’re branching off into other parts of neighborhoods.”

Vickers has been with ODF for five years, but this is his first time cleaning up after a winter storm. “Primarily I assist with fires during the summers,” he said. “But with ODF having incident management teams — it’s all incidents. So storm recovery falls under that response.”

Local resident Patty Gori regularly walks the neighborhood with her dogs and was grateful to see the clearing work. “It was a mess,” she said. “But now, it’s amazing. They got so much cleaned up in the last couple of days, I just can’t even believe it.”

Who ya gonna call? Firefighters. Besides clearing streets and chainsaw duty, ODF sent an IMT to coordinate a unified response to the storm.

“You don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Joe Hessel, from a longtime firefighting family in eastern Oregon.  “You see firefighters digging a fireline or public works crews working on city streets. At some point, somebody’s trying to organize that chaotic potential into something that makes sense. That’s what we’re here helping the city do.” Hessel serves as a deputy incident commander for this post-storm incident, but he’s usually an incident commander with a state team. He said the storm response effort was started and led by Lane County and the City of Springfield, but on January 25 they transferred command over to the city, with the IMT from ODF still assisting.

“In large part, the city staff and departments are doing the work, just like when we were with Lane County,” Hessel said. “We’re helping at the highest level to coordinate and put a plan together to ensure that the right work is getting done at the right place at the right time.”

“We do train for incidents outside of wildfire,” he explained. “The ICS system we use on wildfires carries right across to pretty much any other incident. We’ve been to Florida and helped the State of Florida in hurricane response. We’re prepared in the event that there’s an earthquake or a tsunami here. Last year one of our teams, a short team like we have here, went to a county and helped out with a cyber attack and planning for how to manage and deal with that.”

“ODF is great, they do this type of work for a living in fire management, so they have a lot of experience in incident management,” said Ben Gibson, operations maintenance manager with the City of Springfield. “They’ve been a great resource to our emergency operations center staff in helping us move forward smoothly.”

ODF truck
Oregon Department of Forestry logo on a truck door.

Hessel said both his team and the local crews have learned a lot from each other, and he hopes the information shared between the groups can go a long way in responding to future events. “That transference of skills and knowledge to each other will benefit pretty much either entity,” he said. “And then we’ll actually develop some products we’ll leave behind — some written documents, like a debris removal plan that could be used next time, or a contact list with names on it.”

Eugene and Springfield and the surrounding area endured a record-breaking winter storm with snow and ice and rain and high winds. The storm caused widespread power outages and severely damaged at least 60 percent of the trees at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum. The storm took out powerlines at the arboretum and necessitated a safety closure, according the a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting. Brad Van Appel, longtime director at Mt. Pisgah, said there was about an inch of ice on the trees and it was more than most of them could take.

“We have 209 acres, much of it full of trees,” he said. “I think nearly every tree took some damage.” For those wanting to help, the arboretum and its sister organization Friends of Buford Park are looking for volunteers, and they can sign up online.

Also of note, ODF is looking for a Wildland Fire Supervisor to manage the fire program down in Klamath Falls. This is a permanent benefited position. $4,918 – $7,244 monthly depending on experience. Recruitment closes January 31. 


Wiretap produces federal charges including bid-rigging and fraud

Editor’s note: This news ran almost a month ago and we missed it.
Thanks to Stanley for bringing it to our attention.

Following a court-authorized wiretap investigation, a federal grand jury in Boise returned an indictment last week charging two executives of competing companies with conspiring to rig bids and allocate territories in violation of the Sherman Act (which prohibits trusts, monopolies, and cartels), conspiring to commit wire fraud, and committing wire fraud, according to U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit.

LocalNews8 reported in December that the seven-count felony indictment specifies that the conspiracy by 60-year-old Ike Tomlinson of Terreton and 61-year-old Kris Bird of Salmon affected contracts for firefighting services. The U.S. Forest Service runs a competitive bidding process for these contracts; the indictment alleges that beginning in February 2014  Tomlinson and Bird coordinated their contract bids to “squeeze” and “drown” competitors; they accepted payment for fuel trucks at collusive and noncompetitive daily rates, and then tried to conceal their actions.

The East Idaho News reported that the two were indicted by a grand jury on one count of felony conspiracy to commit wire fraud, five counts of felony wire fraud, one count of conspiracy in restraint of trade: bid rigging and territorial allocation. The charges involve actions between February 2014 and March 2023. The Jefferson Star reported in December that Tomlinson and Bird pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The indictment quotes a text conversation between Tomlinson and Bird, in which the two are discussing raising prices for water tenders.

Tomlinson: Got my water tenders in. Did not put any in salmon. FYI.

Bird: You are the man!! If you wan to put a couple here for a high amount I don’t really care!

Tomlinson: I think I might do that. What should I bid?

Bird: All find out what my bid was and then maybe we’ll both raise them.  😄 

Tomlinson: K just let me know Thanks

In 2020 Tomlinson admitted to collusion with Bird in a recorded conversation, suggesting to another (unnamed) individual that if they did not work together, that individual would “make no money.” Tomlinson told this person:

“As far as the fuel trucks go, I mean it’s just like – you know how Kris Bird and I work together? We basically talk once or twice a year and decide what we’re going to do. And we work it out. Now, if I wasn’t honest and didn’t work it out with you guys that year, trust is gone, we’re done. You know what I mean? We’re back to battling but -- and if we’re back to battling, then we’re both back to making no money. You see what I’m saying?”

Tomlinson then suggested the individual could “buy all the trailers” and then he  and Bird would “do the fuel trucks,” allowing them to “have an agreement where we don’t compete against each other.” The indictment says the other person told Tomlinson that his collusion with Bird was illegal — but the two continued anyway. Through a wiretap on Tomlinson’s cellphone, investigators heard him and Bird discussing how to push other contractors out of the bidding process, with Bird saying, “We could punch them suckers down so that it hurts ’em.”

The investigation was conducted by the Department of Justice Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF). FBI agents, with judicial authorization, intercepted phone calls between Tomlinson and Bird, who spoke with each other just before the USFS deadline to submit bids on fuel truck contracts.  They agreed to rig their bids, allocate territories between their companies, and target other competitors.

A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a $1 million fine for individuals and a maximum penalty of a $100 million fine for corporations. Violating the wire fraud statute carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. A federal district court judge will determine sentences after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Trial Attorney Matthew Chou and Assistant Chief Christopher J. Carlberg of the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Mazorol for the District of Idaho are prosecuting the case.

Anyone with information in connection with this investigation can contact the PCSF HERE. You can also contact Cassie Fulghum, public information officer, at (208)334-1211.

Grassfires destroy far more homes than forest fires

A devastating series of wildfires that swept over forests in Idaho, Montana, and Washington more than a century ago — the Big Burn of 1910 — would forever change the nation’s perception of fire in forests. The lessons learned from that tragedy, however, may have been a bit misguided, according to new research.

Firefighters had been putting out fires for months in 1910 throughout the Western states. They’d finally begun to get ahead during the week of August 19, even beginning to dismiss some firefighters, according to the Forest History Society.

But then all hell broke loose. Hurricane-force winds roared across the states, turning numerous smoldering embers into firestorms.

“A forester wrote of flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air, fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell,” according to a summary document by the USFS.

1910 fires

What became known as the “Big Blowup of 1910” is largely remembered for killing 86 people (78 of whom were firefighters), burning 3 million acres, and completely destroying eight towns.

Wallace, Idaho -- the aftermath
Wallace, Idaho — the aftermath

The fire burned its way into the American conscious, one of the first widely reported wildfire tragedies in the nation’s budding national news system.

Three future Forest Service chiefs were directly involved in the Big Blowup, including W.B.Greeley, Henry Graves, and Ferdinand Silcox, and their experience would go on to shape decades of policy around aggressive fire suppression in U.S. forests. Not only has research shown aggressive suppression to be an ill-advised effort, but the heightened focus on fires in the nation’s forests may have also been misguided.

New research found rising wildfire risk for houses across the United States, with the number of homes within wildfire perimeters doubling since the 1990s, caused by both housing growth and more burned areas. Researchers also got a surprising finding from their study: grassland and shrubland fires destroyed far more houses than those lost to forest fires.

“This pattern was most pronounced in the Western U.S., which encompassed 69 percent of all the buildings destroyed by wildfires,” the researchers wrote. “There, 79.5 percent of all destroyed buildings were lost in grassland and shrubland fires. In the East, by contrast, 82.1 percent of destroyed buildings were lost in forest fires. In the West, even though forests had a high destruction rate (21.3 percent), only 2,367 buildings were destroyed by forest fires compared with 9,402 in grassland and shrubland fires.”

The researchers noted multiple potential reasons for the heightened number of homes destroyed by grassland and shrubland wildfires compared with forest wildfires, including the sheer acreage of grasslands and shrublands throughout the country. From 1990 to 2020, grassland and shrubland accounted for 64 percent of the total area burned by wildfires at ~91 million acres, while forests made up only 27 percent of burned areas at ~34 million acres.

Another reason is the difference in vegetation in the two environments. Wildfire management across grassland and shrublands requires frequent application of multiple types of risk-management strategies, including prescribed burning and fuel thinning, compared with forests — because of the quick recovery of fuel loads in grassland areas. The risk-management strategies, however, may not be advisable in all grasslands and shrublands, specifically those where fire-prone invasive species have replaced native vegetation.

In the West, 79.5 percent of all destroyed buildings were lost in grassland and shrubland fires.

Despite more homes being destroyed by grassland and shrubland wildfires, homes near forest wildfires reportedly have an above-average chance of being destroyed.

“Of the 151,725 buildings … that were exposed to wildfires from 2000 to 2013, 11.3 percent were destroyed,” researchers said. “However, buildings in evergreen and in mixed forests were almost twice as likely to be destroyed (20.1 and 22.9 percent, respectively). By contrast, the destruction rate for shrublands was similar to the average (12.7 percent), and rates for grasslands and deciduous forests were considerably lower (8.0 and 3.3 percent, respectively).”

Researchers believe this is the case partly because of forest wildfires’ higher intensity, but also couldn’t rule out the difference in the architecture of homes built in forests compared with homes built in grasslands and shrublands.

The study concluded by noting that stricter construction standards and land-use planning, specifically avoiding building in areas prone to fire, would help the Forest Service meet its goal of limiting wildfire risk for  newly developed housing.

Christmas Tree permits can help reduce wildfire risk

Federal land management agencies throughout the nation are offering a festive way for residents to reduce wildfire risk.

The USFS Christmas Tree Permit program gives people an opportunity to discover the national forests in interesting ways, while offering a Christmas tree at a cheap price. The agency lists 80 permit areas for forests from California to New Hampshire, each contributing to forest thinning programs.

The BLM also sells permits for trees, both online and in-person. The permit is valid through December 25. Check at  forestproducts.blm.gov and search for your area; cost per tree permit is $5 and a map and permit will be provided.

“For every tree that is found, cut and carried home as a holiday fixture, you’re also contributing to overall forest health,” according to the recreation.gov page. “Christmas tree permits are an opportunity for citizens to help thin densely populated stands of small-diameter trees – the perfect size for a Christmas tree.”

Cutting a Christmas tree
Cutting a Christmas tree — photo courtesy Curry Coastal Pilot

Forest thinning, or reducing the fuels beneath a forest’s tree canopy, contributes to a forest’s health by reducing resource competition. Trees growing too close together have to compete for nutrients, water, and sunlight, leading to weaker trees that are more susceptible to disease, insect infestations, or drought. These weaker trees can also contribute to future wildfire spread.

Western conifer forests have a historic relationship with fire. Fires long have burned the understory of forests, clearing out smaller brush and low branches. Modern-day treatments such as forest thinning and prescribed fire, replicate these historic fires by removing brush, lower tree limbs, and smaller trees (many of which make perfect Christmas trees).

BLM Christmas tree program
BLM Christmas tree program

“Venturing into a local national forest to find that special tree is an experience that creates treasured family memories and stories,” said U.S.  Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “It is through these experiences that people establish important connections to the forest that can lead to a lifetime of adventures and instill a commitment to stewardship.”

Permits from the USFS usually run $10 to $15. Check here to buy a permit from a national forest near you.

The annual Christmas tree market is one of the ways that a profitable “small tree market” can create carbon-beneficial forest management. Berkeley research from 2021 found that promoting innovative uses of wood residues can support extensive wildfire hazard reduction and maximize carbon benefits in California’s forests. Read the full scientific article here.


12/16/2023 — Update from California: The nice folks on the Stanislaus had to go rescue a Tesla cyber-truck driver who was out looking for a tree. The video would make a nice ad for Ford trucks.  WATCH IT HERE.