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Americans can learn from Australia´s fires

A hell of ash, charred stone and melted metal blanketed southeast Australia in early February, due to some 400 wildfires that rapidly incinerated 1,500 square miles (960,000 acres) in Victoria, killing more than 200 residents.

Fire prevention specialist Jason Hartman believes most Americans watched the news about that "down under" disaster with horror and sympathy. But, they may not have seen any important, underlying lessons — much less perceived a need to learn those lessons quickly.

Hartman works through the Kansas Forest Service to help state residents in the urban-rural interface, where "the primary and best fire protection for property rests on each homeowner´s shoulders."

"Before grilling, welding, using a cutting torch, using power tools, and certainly before any kind of trash, brush or field burning please check with your local fire and emergency management officials to see if conditions are safe to do so," Hartman tells Kansans.

Semi-rural neighborhoods in the state first got interested in Hartman´s Firewise program during 2005-06, when a La Nina weather pattern sent Kansas wildfire numbers through the roof, he said. That period also was when the National Weather Service introduced its Red Flag system, which warns when weather and environment are combining to make the risk of wildfires high.

"Unfortunately, we´re now seeing early evidence of what appears to be another La Nina," Hartman said. "Texas is into its second year of deep drought. California´s drought problems now are both worse and more widespread than they were back then, and they´re being combined with water rationing."

Last year, Texas´ and California´s wildfires each accounted for 25.5 percent of the year´s national loss of 5,254,109 acres (or, 4.3 million acres more than this year´s Victoria losses). In raw terms, however, Texas lost 230,747 acres more. And, it had almost three times the number of wildfires.

"I can´t even guess whether the Americans who watched the news about Australia this February also noticed that 15 other wildfires erupted closer to home at about the same time," Hartman said.

They included three fires each for Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the Interagency Fire Center report for the week ending Feb. 13. The U.S. year-to-date totals then were 3,140 wildfires that had burned 80,617 acres.

"Of course, you can never guess what a La Nina will do to Kansas because it´s halfway between the drier than normal conditions to our south and the wetter than normal weather to the north. Sometimes we actually get both," Hartman said. "Kansans would do well to remember, though, that wildfires have always been part of the Kansas landscape.

In fact, some of our native grass seeds won´t germinate until they´ve burned."

In addition, he warned, Kansas is mirroring Texas and the West Coast in an important way.

"More and more people are moving out where housing adjoins fire-prone fields or wilderness. In effect, they´re expanding our rural population," Hartman explained. "Rural fire departments — mostly volunteer — are in charge of protecting life and property there, but they´re being spread thin and thinner. So, if a wildfire goes beyond a department´s limits and resources, they have to skip homes where owners haven´t already created a `defensible space.´"

The forester hopes at-risk Kansans will spend time soon in getting information about longer-term protection against wildfires. They can contact their local fire department, KFS district forester, or nearby Kansas State University Research and Extension office. Other information is available at Firewise Communities and under "wildfire" at K-State Research and Extension website.

TAGS: Management
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