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.

Is that risk map current? Depends on the state.

Colorado’s wildfire risk map was so inaccurate that state officials just about ignored it — for many years. The map was outdated, especially in western Colorado, where 3+ million acres of forest was covered in beetle-killed pines.

Carolina Manriquez, a lead forester with the state’s forest service, said they were supposed to use the state risk map, but they knew it was not accurate and therefore couldn’t rely on it. As the E&E News recently reported, an infusion of $480,000 in state funds resulted in a new Colorado map with updates including pine beetle damage and densely populated mountain towns.

Colorado wildfire risk viewer
Colorado wildfire risk viewer

Including 2017 and 2020, when annual wildfires burned more than 10 million acres, the last decade has marked some of the worst fire seasons in history. The risk is compounded by both climate change and growing wildland/urban interface areas, particularly in the West. Some states — including Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Texas — have moved toward ensuring their fire risk information and maps are updated and more accurate, displaying areas of highest risk and most in need of prevention and mitigation.

Colorado fire risk mapping
Colorado fire risk mapping

“There is a slowly growing push among different states to do this,” said Joe Scott, founder of Pyrologix in Missoula. The firm provides utility wildfire risk assessment, catastrophe modeling, fuels treatment prioritization and management, and exposure analysis.

To improve wildfire risk maps, many states are partnering with firms such as Pyrologix that can build public-access display of fire risk data and conditions. Using satellite imagery, census information, and other data, advanced tools can  determine locations and ranges of ignition probability and fire intensity, along with threatened resource types. Gregory Dillon, director of the USFS fire modeling institute, says the state-specific maps are not a duplication of federal fire maps, but rather a more refined product.

The Kansas Forest Service unveiled in September its new wildfire risk explorer, a digital interactive map that provides a detailed look at statewide fire risk. The effort began in 2018 after several major wildfires including the 2017 Starbuck Fire, which burned some 500,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than $50 million worth of livestock, fencing, and other resources.

“A lot of state-led efforts are trying to communicate to  communities and residents about the risk to private property or municipalities,” said Jolie Pollet, wildfire risk reduction program coordinator at the Department of the Interior.

That’s slightly different from federal mapping efforts focused on protecting federal lands, Pollet said. State-focused mapping can assess evacuation routes, encourage homeowners to reduce their  risk, and improve prepared applications for federal grants. State improvements such as those in Kansas also help forestry and fire officials allocate limited resources to focus on the highest priority areas.

Kansas launches wildfire risk tool

Kansas residents can now easily find their local wildfire risk through a new tool released by the state’s Forest Service.

The Kansas Wildfire Risk Explorer at kansaswildfirerisk.org allows residents to enter an address, city, or specific coordinates into an interactive map to see whether their current risk is low, moderate, high, or extreme. Residents can then generate a report specific to their area, along with precautions they can take to be prepared if a wildfire burns nearby.

Kansas wildfire risk assessment
                                                   Kansas wildfire risk assessment

“As a homeowner, you are not powerless in your defense against wildfires,” the website says. “By taking a proactive approach to wildfire mitigation, you can significantly increase your safety and your home’s likelihood of survival during a catastrophic wildfire event.”

Wildfire in Kansas, photo courtesy State Fire Marshal's Office
Wildfire in Kansas, photo courtesy State Fire Marshal’s Office

The tool began development in 2018 in conjunction with Kansas State University as an evolution of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS), which uses National Weather Service forecasts to predict fire danger.

In addition to wildfire risk, residents can also use the tool to evaluate “Wildfire Effects,” or areas where drinking water, infrastructure, and multiple environmental factors would be adversely affected by wildfires. This layer also shows areas where wildfire suppression would be especially difficult because of steep terrain or very dry vegetation.

The risk viewer also shows historical ignition patterns. This layer doesn’t map probability, but shows where ignition rates and frequency have been higher. The map shows that most ignitions have happened on the outskirts of the state’s most populated cities.

Kansas recorded more than 8,000 wildfires in 2022, about 3,000 more than the state’s yearly average. The last time the state hit its average of ~5,000 wildfires was in 2021 when two people died, 20 people were injured, and over 185,000 acres were burned, according to the Kansas Fire Marshal. Around 95 percent of the state’s wildfires were caused by humans.



Extreme fire weather expected Friday in portions of New Mexico and Colorado

“Friday’s expected weather could rival the most powerful fire events of the past decade,” said a NWS meteorologist

Updated 7:22 a.m. MDT April 22, 2022

Extreme fire weather April 22, 2022
Critical and Extreme fire weather predicted by the Storm Prediction Center for 6 a.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday, April 22 & 23, 2022.

The Storm Prediction Center has issued a Fire Weather Outlook for 6 a.m. MDT Friday April 22 until 6 a.m. MDT Saturday April 23 that uses language we rarely see in a fire weather forecast, including “extremely critical” and “dangerous”.

The forecast warns about extremely critical fire weather conditions in portions of central and eastern New Mexico and eastern Colorado, and critical fire weather for portions of the southern and central high plains.

Click to see all articles on Wildfire Today, including the most recent, about the Calf Canyon, Hermits Peak, and Cooks Peak fires.

Sustained winds out of the south-southwest at 30 to 40 mph with widespread gusts of 50-60 mph are expected with 5 to 15 percent relative humidity. The fuels are exceptionally dry and isolated thunderstorms with little or no rain are possible in some areas.

Three existing fires in northern New Mexico east and northeast of Santa Fe could be vulnerable to extreme conditions, the Cooks Peak Fire, Calf Canyon Fire, and the Hermits Peak Fire. Friday’s forecast for the Calf Canyon Fire, which was very active Thursday, calls for southwest winds of 46 mph gusting to 64 mph with relative humidity in the teens and 20s. It will also be very windy on Saturday.

In Northern New Mexico the wind speeds will increase through the morning, peaking in the afternoon.

Satellite photo smoke from fires New Mexico
Satellite photo showing smoke from the Cooks Peak and Hermits Peak Fires in northern New Mexico at 6:30 p.m. MDT April 21, 2022. NOAA.

CNN is taking this forecast seriously in an article written by four of their meteorologists. Here are some excerpts:

Friday’s expected weather could rival the most powerful fire events of the past decade, Zach Hiris, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder, Colorado, told CNN.

Compared to recent extremely critical, wind-driven fire dangers in rural areas, some major population centers are threatened in this event, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Colorado Springs and the Denver metro area in Colorado.

“There is high confidence that a widespread extreme and potentially catastrophic fire weather event will occur on Friday,” said the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque.

In addition to fueling the fires, widespread wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph — and even 80 mph in scattered areas — could knock down large tree limbs, utility poles and other structures while threatening to topple high-profile vehicles, the weather service said.

Here is the forecast produced by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center at 12:20 p.m. MDT Thursday April 21:

Day 1 Fire Weather Outlook
NWS Storm Prediction Center Norman OK
0202 AM CDT Fri Apr 22 2022

Valid 221200Z – 231200Z



A highly amplified large-scale trough and accompanying intense deep-layer south-southwesterly flow will emerge over the southern Rockies and adjacent High Plains by peak heating. As a result, strong cyclogenesis will occur over far northeastern Colorado during the afternoon, with a sharpening dryline extending southward along the Kansas/Colorado border and the Texas/New Mexico border. The combination of a strong surface pressure gradient, hot/dry conditions behind the dryline, and strong south-southwesterly flow aloft will result in extremely critical fire-weather conditions from east-central New Mexico into eastern Colorado today.

…East-central New Mexico into eastern Colorado… As temperatures climb into the upper 70s to middle 80s behind the sharpening dryline, deep boundary-layer mixing into very dry air aloft will result in widespread 5-15 percent minimum RH. At the same time, 30-40 mph sustained south-southwesterly surface winds (with widespread gusts of 50-60 mph) will overspread critically dry fuels (ERCs above the 90th+ percentile). The volatile combination of very strong/gusty winds, anomalously warm/dry conditions, and near-record dry fuels will encourage extreme fire-weather conditions.

…Remainder of the central and southern High Plains… The eastern extent of critical fire-weather conditions will be demarcated by the placement of the dryline. Strong 30+ mph sustained southerly surface winds (with higher gusts) concurrent with afternoon RH values below 20% will extend into southern New Mexico, West Texas, the western Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles, western Kansas, and western Nebraska — where fuels remain critically dry.

…Dry Thunderstorm Potential… Another point of concern will be isolated dry thunderstorm development immediately along and ahead of the dryline this afternoon, which is expected to take place along the axis of the driest fuels. Any cloud-to-ground lightning flashes that can occur in proximity to the Colorado/Kansas and New Mexico/Texas border area will do so over very receptive fuels, and likely with little wetting rainfall at the early stages of thunderstorm evolution.

..Jirak.. 04/22/2022

(end of forecast)

Below is the forecast for the area near the Calf Canyon fire 23 miles east of Santa Fe.

Weather forecast Calf Fire
Weather forecast for the Calf Fire area, 7 a.m. MDT April 22, 2022.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

Wildfire east of Hutchinson, Kansas prompts evacuations

Approximately 30 air miles northwest of Wichita, Kansas

5 p.m. CT March 5, 2022

Map Cottonwood Complex
The red squares represent the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite at the Cottonwood Complex of fires, 1:12 p.m. CT March 5, 2022. The fire is east of Hutchinson, Kansas.

A wildfire that was reported east of Hutchinson, Kansas at about 12:30 p.m. Saturday has prompted evacuations. It started in the 800 block of Willison Road in Reno County and later spread east into Harvey County.

From The Hutchinson News:

“With Catastrophic Fire Danger and wind gusts upwards of 40 mph, firefighters had their hands full on arrival,” said Chief Doug Hanen, chief of operations for the Hutchinson Fire Department, at a 4:30 p.m. press briefing. “Units immediately engaged in structure protection and assisting residents in evacuating.”

The fire eventually crossed Buhler Road and spread rapidly through the Cottonwood Hills Golf Course, Hanen said. Winds then shifted to the west, making multiple fire fronts.

In the area of Fourth Avenue and Palamino Road, fire crews rescued several people from their homes or cars, but some residents also refused to evacuate.

Fire east of Hutchinson, Kansas
Fire east of Hutchinson, Kansas, at 1:55 p.m March 5, 2022. Image from First National Bank-Hutchinson camera.

There are reports that multiple homes were damaged or destroyed and several residents suffered burns.

The Kansas Forest Service mobilized an air tanker, Tanker 95, a privately owned S-2 formerly operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It is now based in Kansas.

Air Tanker 95, an S-2
Air Tanker 95, an S-2, comes in for reloading with water after battling the Cottonwood Complex of fires east of Hutchinson, KS, March 5, 2022. Image by Heath Hensley.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management has activated two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas Army National Guard to assist firefighters beginning Sunday. The helicopters will have external water buckets.

Gov. Laura Kelly issued a verbal declaration of disaster emergency March 3, due to the potential for wildland fires in the state on Friday and Saturday. The declaration allows the state to preposition aerial firefighting assets from the Kansas Forest Service for a quicker response to any fires that may begin.

The video below shows Tanker 95 arriving to be reloaded with water. Smoke from the fire can be seen in the background.

The area is under a Red Flag Warning on Saturday. Strong winds were predicted to come out of the west at 25 to 35 mph with gusts to 50 mph, with relative humidity as low as 10 to 15 percent.

Red Flag Warnings, March 5, 2022
Red Flag Warnings, March 5, 2022. NWS.

On February 8 another fire in the same general area ran for about two miles pushed by winds gusting at more than 30 mph. Shortly after it started Fire Marshal Michael Cain was investigating to determine if it was caused by embers from some of the 75 brush piles that were ignited on private land.

Firefighters battling wildfire east of Hutchinson, Kansas

About 32 miles northwest of Wichita

Updated at 1:37 p.m. CT Feb. 9, 2022

The Hutchinson Fire Department said in a news release Wednesday morning that the fire east of the city, now named the Albright Fire, was about 90 percent contained.

Pushed by strong winds, the fire which started south of Buhler ran south for about two miles from 30th Avenue to 4th Avenue. Firefighters worked Tuesday night and by morning all roads had reopened but burnout operations may cause temporary closures of some streets.

Fire Marshal Michael Cain has been investigating the fire to determine the cause, which is still believed to be embers from some of the 75 brush piles that were ignited on private land last Thursday when snow was on the ground. Warmer weather melted the snow rapidly and at least one of the piles spread Tuesday during the strong winds as the humidity dropped to 13 percent.

Damages to property and the total number of acres burned was still being determined Wednesday morning.

Updated at 12:37 a.m. CST Feb. 9, 2022

The winds that had been gusting at more than 30 mph slowed after 6 p.m. on Tuesday making it much easier for firefighters to begin to get a handle on a large wildfire a few miles east of Hutchinson, Kansas. Combined with relative humidity that dipped as low as 13 percent the strong winds resulted in the fire spreading south for nearly two miles from where it started just south of 30th Avenue near Buhler Road.

From the Hutchnews:

“By the time we got there, it was already running north to south,” Fire Chief Steve Beer said. “Numerous departments were called in to help with structure protection. We started an early evacuation of two or three dozen homes. We got everyone safely evacuated who wanted to leave.”

The evacuation was primarily in homes along Fourth Avenue, Beer said. It wasn’t a mandatory evacuation, so not everyone left.

“The fire didn’t move that fast,” Beer said. “But when it got in the cedars it would throw flames 50 feet into the air. It’s pretty impressive to watch. We’re thankful, it was not as bad as it could have been. The key to this area is to do back-burns. Once we did get ahead of it with enough resources, we got a handle on it.”

Fire officials said the likely cause was embers from woodpiles that were burned over the weekend.

As the weather conditions moderated, by 7 p.m. Tuesday some firefighting resources were being released and residents were expected to be back in their homes later in the evening.

Chief Beer said the S-2 air tanker aided firefighters by attacking the blaze in areas that were difficult for them to access due to sandy soils and cedar trees.

Originally published at 5:44 p.m. CST Feb. 8, 2022

Hutchinson Fire map
The map shows red squares that represent the approximate locations of heat at a fire detected east of Hutchinson, Kansas by the GOES-16 satellite at 2:40 p.m. CT Feb. 8, 2022.

Firefighters are working to contain a large wildfire about three miles east of Hutchinson, Kansas. Strong winds out of the north gusting to 36 mph are pushing the blaze to the south.

Crews are working to save structures near the intersection of East 4th Avenue and Williston Road.

The area is under a Red Flag Warning for high fire danger due to the powerful winds. The relative humidity was measured at 13 percent in Hutchinson at 4:52 p.m. The National Weather Service expects the wind speeds to decrease after sundown.

The fire is approximately three miles east of Hutchinson, about 2 miles south of Buhler, and 32 air miles northwest of Wichita.

Air tanker 95, a privately owned S-2, was dispatched to the fire. It is operated by Ag Air Service out of Nikerson, Kansas.

Air Tanker 95, an S-2
Air Tanker 95, an S-2. Kansas Forest Service photo.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt.