September 30, 2004 | By: Aimee Heald-Nielson

Weather in Kentucky has been anything but predictable and normal in August and September. Hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have wreaked havoc on coastal towns and poured rain on areas far, far from the waterfront including parts of Kentucky. With so much rainfall and soil already saturated with moisture, most people would think this year’s fall fire season would be limited.

University of Kentucky Extension Agriculture and Natural Resource Specialist Doug McLaren emphasized that Kentucky landowners still have much to be concerned about when fire season officially begins Oct. 1. 

“The foresters who are responsible for forest fire protection for the Kentucky Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service are not as comfortable with the rain distribution that is being foreseen in the near future,” he said. “Even though we have had large amounts of rain in eastern Kentucky during August and September, this is not going to alleviate the concern for forest fires in October. Yes, the soil is saturated in many locations but the ready fire fuels of falling leaves and light fuels existing on the ground make forest fires a high probability during October and November. “

UK Agricultural Meteorologist Tom Priddy said although eastern Kentucky saw several periods of very heavy rain and flash flooding, dry conditions have existed long enough now to cause concern about fall forest fires. He also said western Kentucky has experienced conditions over the last four to six weeks that warrant concern there as well.

“Although western Kentucky is not officially considered to be in a drought status there is still reason for concern there,” he said. “Many areas in the western part of the state have had little or no rainfall in August and September and there is no rain in the forecast for the rest of the month. Western Kentucky is on the way to recording the driest September and quite possibly the driest month period, in 110 years.”

While most forest fires are started by arsonists, the weather and climate conditions do play a critical role in fire intensity and duration.

“The fine fuels that result from the falling leaves during September and October create a dangerous situation,” McLaren said. “The fuels that are set on fire can dry out larger fuels that were wet by the hurricanes of the past two months. Generally thousands of acres of valuable timber are burned annually in Kentucky due to fires started by arsons. Many other fires are started due to individuals thinking that past rain events have dampened the fuels enough to keep small crop fields and recreational fires from becoming forest fires.”

Priddy said eastern parts of the commonwealth are 8 to 10 inches above normal rainfall for the year, but the problem is that the fallen leaves dry very quickly and they are sensitive to the lower relative humidity in the fall.

“The relative humidity has been especially low the last week to 10 days,” he said. “So, even with the extra rainfall, we’ve had a recent dry spell that causes a concern for fire danger.”

Because fires in the western United States often are defined by the way they consume and envelope entire trees, McLaren said there is a perception that those fires cause more damage. He said that even though forest fires in Kentucky stay relatively close to the ground, they still cause damage as evidenced by large burn scars that produce entry courts for future wood rot problems. 

“Many of the trees that are affected by fires continue to grow but the value of the tree will never increase and in most cases it will decrease, he said. “Death and decrease in value for the tree and the potential products is always the outcome.”

Kentucky timber is a valuable agricultural product. McLaren said that many loggers and saw millers across the state earn their incomes or supplement their incomes from timber harvesting. Some stands of timber will never be harvested, even though the trees are large, due to the large amount of rot and decay that has been initiated by fires from previous years.

Priddy said the outlook for October through December shows near normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation for Kentucky.

“That puts us in a continuing situation of less rainfall,” he said. “That’s just not the best thing for forest fires.”


Writer: Aimee D. Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Source: Doug McLaren 859-257-2703
Tom Priddy 859-257-3000, ext. 245