Rain is expected this weekend.
But the red flag flew on Wednesday.
After rain and lower temperatures put a recent damper on grass fires, the National Weather Service on Wednesday issued a red flag warning, announcing that it expected a “critical fire danger” across northwestern Missouri and northeastern Kansas.
The combination of winds gusting from 30 to 35 mph, combined with continuing low humidity, meant grass that remained “still mostly cured” continued to be susceptible to stray sparks. It was one more reminder of what happens when a dry winter is met with the usual winds of spring.
“We just haven’t had the moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico,” said Mike July, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Pleasant Hill forecast office.
“Combine the low humidity with the breezy conditions and if someone carelessly throws out a cigarette, it can start a fire fairly easily with the native grasses that are still dormant.”
Firefighters are well aware of the uptick in grass fire calls. Through all of 2013, the Kansas City Fire Department responded to 296 wildland, brush or grass fires, said Floyd Peoples, the department’s chief fire marshal.
Through just the first three months of 2014, the department responded to 177 such fires.
“The ground can be wet, but if the cover is dry, it can burn, and if there is wind, it can spread,” Peoples said.
March moisture in Missouri averaged below normal. Data indicated a statewide average of 1.97 inches of precipitation, which is 1.3 inches below normal, according to the Missouri Climate Center in Columbia. It represented the third consecutive month with below-normal precipitation.
Accordingly, firefighters remained busy throughout the month across the area and region.
On March 13, crews from Kansas City and Platte County battled a grass fire that spread over 30 acres and closed a portion of Missouri 92 near the Missouri River.
On March 30, a grass fire covering 1,500 acres in northeast Kansas damaged four homes. The same day, Kansas City firefighters battled a blaze across several acres near Swope Park at 50th Street and Hardesty Avenue.
From March 28 through March 30, Independence firefighters responded to 16 grass fires, and one firefighter suffered minor muscular injuries while shoveling through a wooded area, said John Greene, Independence deputy fire chief.
The Independence department enforces a city ordinance that prohibits open burning of materials such as yard waste. Although most residents abide by those restrictions, some still do not.
“A lot of it was just careless people still not following the outside burning ordinance,” Greene said. “People just continue to step over that line. We had to put out the fires and try to explain that with these conditions, you are really rolling the dice.”
Some exceptions are allowed for recreational events like bonfires. The Fire Department will issue a free permit, but only after an on-site inspection.
Wyandotte County residents are allowed to burn organic waste generated on their property in April and from mid-October through mid-November, with several conditions. When conditions dictate, officials will issue temporary burn bans, as they did Wednesday.
Like some other municipalities, the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department uses small, four-wheel-drive “brush trucks” that can maneuver in spaces that a traditional fire department apparatus cannot.
“We have these strategically placed throughout the community,” said Craig Duke, deputy fire chief.
Department personnel often follow the small vehicles, stamping out hot spots and using blowers to keep burning embers from spreading, Duke said.
The Kansas City Fire Department responds to about 1,200 fires a year, an average of 100 a month.
“We can put out a house fire in a matter of minutes, but there are times when a wildwood fire will burn all day before we can get a handle on it,” Peoples said. “As spring brings out the green, the hazard will abate until the next risk season of summer or fall.”
That moment hasn’t arrived, added Greene.
“For the next week or so, we are still under the gun,” he said.