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It Is Just a Matter of When

It Is Just a Matter of “When”

By R. Dwayne Rice, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Lincoln, Kansas

If you look across the Kansas landscape you will see, right before your eyes, an ever growing eastern redcedar tree invasion taking place. We can document the thousands of acres being annually consumed through satellite photographs, site reconnaissance, and agency reports and still the spread, growth, and threat continues unabated. It is just a matter of when.

About 90,000 acres of Creek County, Oklahoma,  my home county just west of Tulsa, burned this summer along with nearly 400 homes in a wildfire. The cause was apparently a discarded cigarette along a highway, but that is not really important; it could have just as easily been lightning or some other human activity. It was the fuel, not the source of ignition, that caused the problems and most of the fuel load was the redcedar trees. Sure, the dry conditions helped, but firefighters, no matter how well-trained or equipped, cannot fight 30- to 40-foot walls of flame only feet from the side of a house while enduring heat so intense that you have to seek cover from 300 yards away. They cannot stop a fire that is throwing burning embers and firebrands two and three miles downwind onto rooftops and across roads and fields. Grass fires are fast and can burn exceptionally hot, but they just cannot match the magnitude of an eastern redcedar in volatility. Eastern redcedar trees can burn like gasoline, and it does not matter how dedicated your firefighting crew is, there is no way to fight or prevent that type of wildfire.

My parents’ house was in the path of that fire in Oklahoma. Fortunately, Dad has kept the cedars cleared out of the pastures surrounding the house, and while the fire did burn the pasture grass and yard right up to the house’s foundation, the house was not scorched and his farmstead did not lose any buildings. Dad’s place did not get away completely unscathed: mature fruit trees, 85 hives of bees, 170 bales of hay, all of the pasture grass, and a tractor were part of the casualties my parents’ property suffered because of the wildfire. The neighbors, who in the past have so often complained about the occasional smoke from Dad’s prescribed pasture fires, which he has used to keep his pastures clear of eastern redcedars, were not so fortunate. Most of the neighbors who have allowed the eastern redcedars to engulf their pastures and yards did not stand a chance of protecting their homes. In fact, if you talk to many of the volunteer firefighters who fought the blaze for five consecutive days, they will tell you that their objective was to locate and defend those homes that were defensible. Homes surrounded by eastern redcedars were not on that list. Nothing is defensible from an eastern redcedar fueled wildfire.

The people in Creek County, could have prevented this fire from reaching the intensity and magnitude if they had simply controlled the fuel source while the eastern redcedar trees were small. Farmers and ranchers have been successfully using prescribed burns to control these trees on agricultural lands since before statehood, but many people consider prescribed burns a nuisance, threat, or source of air pollution rather than a way of reducing volatile and threatening fuel loads. They simply miss the point that the 90,000 acres will eventually burn anyway, but the taller the trees, the greater the risk of damage to lives and property. This was the case in the Creek County fire, where the 20-foot eastern redcedar trees caused 387 families to lose their homes, yet burning 2-foot trees in a prescribed burn could have prevented the tragedy. The magnitude of this fire could have been averted, with some simple, well-planned maintenance burning to reduce the volatile fuel load.

If you look across the Kansas landscape, especially the suburban and rural areas surrounding many communities in the eastern two-thirds of Kansas, you can pick out those pastures and houses similar to Dad’s neighbors; pastures with thousands of small eastern redcedar trees growing larger and more numerous by the year and houses so completely surrounded it is hard to tell if a house is in the middle of the trees or not. Pasture upon pasture and acre upon acre of small eastern redcedars all over Kansas are getting taller and larger by the year, with mature trees sending out thousands and thousands of seeds each fall. You see the threat growing and spreading every day—an eastern redcedar invasion. What most folks do not consider is that an eastern redcedar tree is like a phosphorous match just waiting to be struck. It is not a matter of “if” an eastern redcedar tree is going to burn, it is just a matter of “when.”

To learn more about prescribed burns and other conservation practices, please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov. Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.