The last month has been the most extreme temperature fluctuations I have ever seen. I had 10F this morning, a few claimed 7F. Tomorrow afternoon, it is forecast to be 65F. We went from being very wet most of the year to pretty dry at the surface. The last few weeks have seen our afternoon humidity drop into the 20s, we had red flag warnings Saturday and already tonight they are talking about issuing them tomorrow and Friday. A red flag warning means extreme fire danger, and it is something we take very seriously on the Kansas prairie. We had one of our two monthly fire meetings tonight and spent part of the time taking care of details on the trucks, and part of the time recalling the last time we had such low humidities day after day, 1996. I have a few pics posted in my gallery from that year, for about 4 weeks beginning the middle of February we were run ragged with fires. The 3 big ones burned 9600, 10000 and 30000 acres respectively. It may seem odd for a farmer on a farming forum to be so fixated with fire, but the two go hand in hand. A huge fire that stopped just 3 miles from here in 1976 went through cows and burned their udders beyond salvage.
We have the largest land mass fire district in the state of Kansas(according to our chief) and every square inch of it is protected by volunteers, last I knew we had nearly 160 on the rolls in this county. I think that is very impressive considering our population is barely 7000(about 7 people per square mile). My farm sits in the middle of arable ground, so there is nearly no chance of a range fire reaching my buildings, especially since two rivers border the north and south sides. However, my parents farm sits at the north side of about 1000 acres of prairie grass, my dad worries alot this time of year when it is dry about getting burned out. To properly manage our native bluestem grass, we cannot graze it short like you do in the UK, ideally we try to leave half. Since we stock based on average rainfall, a year like 2008 produces even more grass then the cattle will eat, meaning we have an impressive fuel supply to work with. There are lots of seed heads as high as my chin in places(I am about 6'tall). The actual grass in most pastures is at least a foot tall, and in some areas 2 feet tall, and paper dry. All it takes is a spark, from electric lines slapping together, a cigarette thrown from a vehicle, an electric fence, a faulty muffler. The strangest of all time was when a hawk was electrocuted on a high line and started a fire, I did not believe the witness until we found the dead bird, nearly perfect except with one toe blown off of each foot.
The lack of humidity is as much of a problem as wind when it comes to fighting grass fires. Most years, a road will stop about 90% of the fires, but in windy conditions with no humidity to speak of a road won't even slow a fire down. I well remember 1996 watching fire leap across the highway without hesitating. The reality is, all we can do is chase along the firelines and try to save any houses in the path, and try to either backfire along a road, or run the fire into a creek or river. In the conditions we have now hitting the headfire head on is nearly suicidal.
We will be hoping for the best the next two days. It has been nearly 3 years since a fire of any size was in our district, that fire burned around 1500 acres. In the 14 or so years I have been involved in the fire service, I only recall losing one occupied house to a prairie fire. Our truck was only a half mile from that house, but we could not get through the fire to get to it. No loss of life, so it was not as bad as possible. Chances are, no matter how bad the next few days get, all that will burn is alot of grass, some hay, a few buildings, and maybe the odd cow or oil tank. If everyone is careful as they are being told to be, we probably won't even have a fire. But, we will be on pins and needles, and try to stay out of the pastures with vehicles all together except in the very early morning.
I tried to find a really good video of a Kansas prairie fire on youtube and couldn't, but found a decent one of a fire at night in our neighboring state of Oklahoma. It will give a good idea of what a smaller fire is like. Hope the link works http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htb8QgGRqD8