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Remembering December's Day of Fire

With so much going on in the world, it's easy to forget or overlook things going on at home. Commentator Rex Buchanan says many Kansans are still recovering from devastating wildfires last December. He's one of them.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is an author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey. The Lawrence resident is also coauthor of the book Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills, published by University Press of Kansas

(TRANSCRIPT)

December 15 was an incredible weather day, even by Kansas standards. The wind blew, hard. Eighty to one-hundred mile-an-hour wind gusts in many parts of the state. Semis blew over. Dust and sand filled the air and lowered visibility. Roads were closed.

But worst of all were the fires. The biggest burned more than 100,000 acres in Osborne and Russell counties, destroying homes, killing livestock and two people.

After the past couple of years, with a pandemic and political polarization, these fires seemed like an especially cruel blow. They had an almost “here we go again” feel to them.

While the fire in Osborne and Russell counties got the most attention, other, smaller fires flared up across the state. Out where I grew up in Rice County, in central Kansas, power-lines jostled by the wind set off a fire that burned through several pastures, including my own, even threatening the nearby town of Little River before firefighters got it stopped.

My pasture is native prairie in the Smoky Hills. As opposed to the Flint Hills, where ranchers burn the grass almost every spring to control brushy vegetation, burning is less common in the Smoky Hills. Most pastures here are smaller than in the Flint Hills, so keeping fire on your own property is a challenge. Burning is just not part of the culture.

It probably should be. Fire suppression lets other vegetation, like eastern red cedars, take over. I fight cedars and other vegetation, like buck brush, in my pasture. Burning is the best way to control it. But in some years the weather — too windy, too wet -- just doesn’t cooperate.

Powered by the high winds and dry vegetation, the December 15 fire burned especially hot. I drove through the (my?) pasture on Christmas morning. The ground’s surface was still mostly black, covered with ash. Everything that could burn had burned. Even plants like yuccas and prickly pear, which can be pretty tough, were gone. It was quiet. No bird song or grass rustling.

With the vegetation burned away, the pasture was almost a different place, unrecognizable. The lack of vegetation revealed boulders of newly visible Dakota sandstone and holes of fresh orange dirt where coyotes had already dug new dens. When a tornado hits a town and takes away all the trees, the result is an unfamiliar landscape. The same was true for my burned-over pasture. You wouldn’t think that grass would be so central to orienting yourself in a landscape, but it is.

Most ranchers who burn, either in the Flint Hills or the Smoky Hills, generally do so in the spring, late March or early April, just before the grass starts to green up. Winter burns are rare because people don’t want to the ground to sit without cover, which can lead to erosion.

But even with the risk of erosion, and some burned up fenceposts, the fire in my pasture wasn’t a bad thing. It got rid of vegetation that needed getting rid of. People tell me how good it’ll look in the spring, when the grass comes back.

I sure hope they’re right.

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