Drought elevates concerns about wildfires, climate change’s effects on Douglas County

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Daniel Lassman has more than two decades of experience with controlled burns in rural Douglas County, but a recent burn on his family’s farm caused him to take a step back and re-evaluate his game plan.

While burning a dead tree in mid-October with his dad, Lassman said he was surprised by the fire’s behavior. Expecting a slower and cooler burn, he witnessed a more summer-like fire: the voracious kind that burns fast and hot.

“I saw the fire start turning and twisting, and we had a few spot fires that went up,” Lassman said, referring to the smaller fires sparked by windblown embers outside a fireline. “We were able to get a sprayer hooked up, we’re gonna try to get one of those pumps, eventually, that you can put on the back of your truck. But if it wasn’t for that, that would have gone over our little mound across 1000 Road and kept going north.”

Lassman, 33, grew up south of Lawrence near Wells Overlook Park. As part of the sixth generation of his family to live on the land, he’s helped with prescribed burns since his preteen years. Lassman also has participated in Wildland Firefighter Type II training, although he isn’t certified.

“It was very, very hot, and we kept it under control, ultimately, but we’ve decided to hold off, at least until it either gets a lot cooler, wetter, or we have a lot more equipment and people.”

Wildfires, recent suspicious grass fires in Douglas County, gusty winds, and the county’s upgrade from moderate to severe drought status Oct. 13 by the U.S. Drought Monitor have heightened concerns about wildfires. The Douglas County Commission on Oct. 19 approved a five-day burn ban in unincorporated areas that has since expired.

Douglas County burn status

Typically, Director of Douglas County Emergency Management Robert Bieniecki and staff determine burn status on a daily basis.

The county’s hotline announces current status by 8 a.m. daily and also allows residents to log their burns by phoning 785-832-5394.

Restoring landscapes with native plants won’t prevent wildfires, but it can slow down fires and change how the ecosystem responds to drought conditions, said Lassman, who earned a master of science in landscape architecture with a focus in restoration ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Native landscapes also benefit pollinators, leading to increased biodiversity and a more sustainable ecosystem.

Lassman cited the restoration ecology consultation work he’s doing at a home near Seventh and Connecticut streets. Located near the Kansas River, the yard’s deeper and fibrous native plant roots help prevent erosion while maintaining moisture longer than traditional short-mowed yards, especially those situated further away from water sources.

Although his client’s yard is too small and urban for a prescribed burn, raking it every one to two years and removing dead matter will reduce fuel should a fire threaten it, Lassman said.

Reporting smoke and being responsible with fire usage are good habits to adopt, Lassman said. Only use campfires and outdoor grills when it’s safe to do so, and always park on paved roads and surfaces rather than within tall weeds and grass. And if you’re contemplating a prescribed burn but haven’t yet secured the adequate tools and resources to fight a fire should it get out of control, postpone your plans.

The future of water

Last month, Douglas County recorded its sixth driest September on record during the past 128 years. Annual rainfall is down 2.74 inches from normal for the first nine months of 2022, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

In mid-November, the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas will highlight the state’s latest policies and research, including the Kansas Water Plan.

Invited to speak on groundwater issues during a breakout session at the conference in Manhattan is Jim Butler, senior scientist in the geohydrology section of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. Butler will discuss the drought’s effect on groundwater.

South and west of Douglas County, Butler pointed out, some areas are dealing with more severe drought conditions, which are classified as extreme and exceptional. In western Kansas, the depletion of water resources such as the Ogallala Aquifer shows the effects of drought and irrigation on groundwater supplies.

“I think we are fortunate here in eastern Kansas, that we have relatively good water supplies in terms of surface water. And so that has been beneficial to us,” Butler said.

Protecting Douglas County

Another positive for Douglas County is activists’ interest in working with city and county leaders to mitigate the effects of climate change while looking toward the future, said Ward Lyles, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at KU. 

“Whether we’re talking about drought, or high intensity rain events that lead to flash flooding, these phenomena are going to become more common, and in all likelihood, also more severe,” Lyles said. “There are processes going on right now where people can help shape the bigger future of our county in taking this more seriously.”

Ward Lyles

Forward-thinking, local grassroots efforts Lyles suggested include involvement in the Douglas County Climate Action Plan and the Sunrise Movement, which aims to engage young activists in removing the influence of fossil fuels from politics, making health and climate change high priorities and electing leaders who share those values.

Other tools are the Lawrence land development code process and the Douglas County Mitigation Plan, which assesses hazard and vulnerability risks such as soil erosion and flooding.

“Those hazard mitigation plans tend to be a little bit of ‘insider baseball,’ but they’re important processes for the emergency managers, the land-use planners and other people to think through what hazards do we face?” Lyles said, using housing development near a floodplain as an example.

“Because if we do that, not only do we put people at risk, but that takes good sponge land to hold water and turns it into pavement and roofs and things that then cause the water to float downstream.”

With regional needs for more affordable housing and housing to accommodate growth, area residents will struggle with questions like these and need to make smart land-use decisions, Lyles said, pointing out the influx of Panasonic employees Douglas and Johnson counties expect in the coming years.

Other climate change effects such as higher temperatures and poor air quality pose additional threats to public health, making it a moral obligation to address climate change, Lyles said. Oppressed people and those with vulnerable health conditions are affected hardest by climate change, as are those who work outside or are unhoused, isolated, poor, or elderly.

This year, Douglas County is forecasted to experience seven days with a heat index of 109 degrees or higher. In 30 years, the county is predicted to log 16 109-degree or higher days annually, according to the nonprofit First Street Foundation’s Risk Factor tool.

People who are unhoused might be able to locate indoors during daylight to stay cool, but sleeping in a hot and humid tent night after night puts stress on bodies, Lyles said. That cycle can exacerbate health issues and even cause deaths.

The smoke that rolled into Lawrence from a controlled burn at Forbes Field in Topeka on Oct. 20 shows how powerful winds can carry particulates and pollutants, affecting air quality far away from the actual flames. Fires as far away as California and Colorado have affected air quality in Kansas.

“It may not seem catastrophic if there’s a fire 12 miles from here. But if the winds blow in your house for three days, that’s not good,” Lyles said. “And you’re going to have health consequences for elderly folks, people with chronic illnesses, people with children. So there’s a huge health impact and an equity impact there.”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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