October 25, 2006 | By: Terri McLean

Despite above normal rainfall amounts across Kentucky in recent weeks, a buildup of debris on the forest floor is fueling concern about the potential for forest fires through the remainder of the fall fire season.

“It’s been five years since we have had a major forest fire event,” said Doug McLaren, forestry specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “The buildup of forest fuels over time can cause real problems. It takes very little sunlight and very little wind for them to dry out.”

The greatest potential for forest fires will be in November, typically the driest part of the year. It’s also “when we have all the new leaves on the ground and solar radiation can get to the ground without being impeded by leaves on the trees.” McLaren said. 

The hope, he said, is that consistent rainfall patterns continue to lessen the chances for fires to get started.

“The reason we haven’t had a major fire event in five years is due to the simple fact that we’ve had this rain consistency,” he said. “That is, every time it would start to get dry we would have another rain occurrence. It’s happened both in the spring and the fall the last five years.”

Although it’s been some time since a major forest fire in Kentucky, there have been many small fires. Already this year, about 1,400 fires are responsible for burning nearly 43,000 acres, according to the Kentucky Division of Forestry. 

The most vulnerable time for these fires is in the spring, from Feb. 15 through April 30, and in the fall, from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. They are most likely to occur in eastern Kentucky, where the majority of the state’s woodlands are located. It’s also the area with a high rate of arson, which is the cause of most forest fires in the state, McLaren said. 

Human carelessness is also a major cause of forest fires in Kentucky, he added.
“I think 99.9 percent of fires in Kentucky originate with people. And that’s either from pure arson or from people who are burning and not paying attention to what they’re doing and let the fires get away from them, whether it’s burning a field or burning rubbish in the backyard.”

Although many trees do not die after a fire, openings are created in the base of the trees which provide entrances for insects and disease, McLaren said. Some stands of timber will never be harvested, even though the trees are large, because of the large amount of rot and decay that has been initiated by fires from previous years.

“With each fire is the loss of potential value of the timber the fire affects,” he said.

There are burning restrictions in place to help prevent forest fires. During fire season, all outdoor burning is banned between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Otherwise, fires should be located at least 150 feet from a forested area and brushlands. In addition, all open burning should be done in a common sense manner. People should stay with their fires to keep them from getting out of control.

“If a fire does get out of control and it points to an individual person, that person will have to pay for all the suppression costs for that fire, whether it’s one acre or thousands upon thousands of acres,” McLaren said.


Doug McLaren, 859-257-2703