April 16, 2010

It's a vibrant spring around much of the state, with flowering trees and wildflowers setting the woods alight with color. Unfortunately, something else is setting them alight. The low amount of rainfall, along with arson and human carelessness, has resulted in nearly 800 wildfires since the start of the year. With two more weeks left in the wildland fire season, and little rain in the forecast, foresters are keeping their eyes open for new outbreaks and asking citizens to do the same.

"I tend to think, with the drought we're having right now, that number's going to grow," said Doug McLaren, extension forestry specialist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture .

Most of the fires have occurred in Eastern Kentucky, with 15 of the 18 counties reporting fire activity lying east of Interstate 75 and south of Interstate 64. The other fires are in three Central Kentucky counties, and active burn bans have been issued for 24 counties in Eastern, Southeastern and Central Kentucky.

Despite the snowfall the region received throughout the winter, conditions are ripe for wildfire activity. UK Agricultural Meteorologist Tom Priddy said that the area around Jackson has recorded 3.08 inches below normal precipitation for the year. The Central Kentucky area is approximately 6 inches below normal precipitation. Priddy said the above normal temperatures in April are an additional concern in contributing to the dry conditions.

"Since April 1, this is the warmest April for Central Kentucky so far," he said. "It's amazing how warm it's been."

It's all "coming together," in McLaren's view, for a bad wildland fire season."We're extremely dry, and we're getting no rain, and we have a buildup of leaf litter from years when we haven't had forest fires," he said.

The Kentucky Division of Forestry 's most recent wildfire activity report cites arson as the cause of 467 fires, with debris burns causing another 231 fires. A variety of other causes account for the remaining 95 wildfires reported as of April 14.Those watching television news reports of the blazes may wonder why there is so much concern. Wildfires in this part of the country, with its hardwood forests, don't burn with the spectacular, sky-brushing intensity of their conifer-fueled cousins in the western states. Dry leaves on the forest floor fuel Kentucky wildfires, and by mid-May when the tree canopy closes over and most of the fires are extinguished, it may be difficult to locate many of the burned acres. But McLaren pointed out that fire damage to valuable timber-producing trees-whether easily visible or not-can have a profound effect on the region's timber industry for decades.

"The consequences of wildland fires are found in the long term, rather than the immediate short term of a tree's growth," he said. "No matter when a tree has been affected by fire-whether it's in its first year of growth or year 90-there's going to be some sort of defect associated with that tree. And the younger the tree is when it's affected by fire, the more intense that damage is going to be."

Fires that creep along the ground probably won't burn a tree to the ground, but they increase a tree's internal temperature. Even if that internal temperature rises for only a few short minutes, damage occurs. Injured bark provides easy access to insects and disease, resulting in weakened or stained timber, neither of which will bring the landowner a good price at harvest. And, McLaren pointed out, when loggers see any fire damage in a stand of timber, they focus on finding the extent of the damage throughout the stand. More than likely, the entire stand will be affected, and that damage will affect not only the landowner's wallet, but will resound throughout the state's economy. According to the Kentucky Forest Industries Association, the forest industry contributes $4.5 billion annually to Kentucky's economy. Much of that originates on privately owned woodlands.

McLaren said it's in the best interest of both landowners and passersby to not ignore a wildfire, but report it immediately, even if it's just a plume of smoke they see in the distance.

"You should contact your local representative of the Division of Forestry," he said. "Every county is different, so you need to know what that local number is."

The Kentucky Division of Forestry recommends that people suspecting arson should contact the nearest Kentucky State Police post or the Target Arson Hotline at 1-800-27-ARSON.

More information on wildfires is available at the Kentucky Division of Forestry website, http://www.forestry.ky.gov or in the online UK Cooperative Extension publication "Debris Burning and Forest Fires," http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/for/for14/for14.htm.

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