Cedar trees add to challenges for crews fighting Kansas wildfires

Cedar trees can fuel wildfires, making an already difficult situation with strong wind and dry ground, even worse.
Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 9:18 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Crews in Pawnee County spent Wednesday mopping up hotspots from a large grassfire that broke out Tuesday. Fighting the large fire required assistance from Sedgwick County and the Kansas Forest Service. The Pawnee County Fire Department reported at least one residence and several structures destroyed in the fire.

One reason why fires like this can easily get out of hand is cedar trees that have rapidly spread across Kansas. Those trees can fuel wildfires, making an already difficult situation with strong wind and dry ground, even worse.

Tuesday, towering flames could be seen in Pawnee County, jumping between cedar trees.

“As the tree burns, it scatters thousands of embers downwind and so, it helps to increase the overall rate of fire spread,” said Matt McKernan with K-State Research and Extension.

McKernan said the Eastern Red Cedars have thin bark and flammable foliage that easily ignites. The trunk of the tree also sucks up a lot of groundwater, creating dry conditions around them.

“Typically, the tree is going to be driest in February and March because of the moisture it pulled out of these trees all winter long,” he said.

Over the years, the cedar trees themselves have spread across the state. Maps from the Natural Resource Conservation Service show coverage jumping substantially from 2000 to 2018.

Maps of Hutchinson show the same trend from 1984 to 2020. McKernan said even if a cedar tree catches fire, two-thirds to three-quarters of the tree needs to burn to kill it.

“The overall shape of the tree, typically, they are cone in shape, so the foliage goes right to the ground. So, those volatile oils are right there where a fire often starts,” he said.

Much of the mitigation work is up to landowners to make sure cedar trees aren’t overgrown or grow in large clusters. There are programs offered for homeowners to help them manage cedar trees among efforts to protect properties from wildfires. You can learn more about protecting your home from wildfire at the following links:

https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/MF2241.pdf

https://www.kansasforests.org/rural_forestry/financialincentiveprograms.html

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