August 22, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

It’s been a very dry summer and that doesn’t bode well for Kentucky’s approaching fall fire season. Another year’s accumulation in forest floor fuels and relatively low fuel moisture levels are creating an environment for serious forest fires in the state’s woodlands this fall.

The fall fire season extends from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1. The last time Kentucky had a seriously dangerous fire season was more than five years ago. Forest floor fuels are now at dangerously high levels and the long-range outlook doesn’t look promising for dampening rains this fall.

“The long range outlooks for Kentucky continue the above normal temperatures all the way through October,” said Tom Priddy, University of Kentucky agricultural meteorologist. “The below normal rainfall is in the outlook through the end of August and then the September, October timeframe is calling for near normal precipitation. However, that said, as we move into October, we’re moving into our climatologically driest part of the year.”

“With the crispy conditions that we have right now, we are looking at what could be an extremely serious fire season,” said Gwen Holt, division communication officer for the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

Nearly half of Kentucky is covered by forest and the state’s forest industries add $6.4 billion a year to the state’s economy. According to Doug McLaren, UK Cooperative Extension forestry specialist, the economic impact from a wildfire blazing through a stand of young trees can last “decades upon decades upon decades.”

For that reason, fire season should be taken very seriously. McLaren said 99 percent of Kentucky forest fires are started by man, through arson, accidents or carelessness. He said sometimes people get the wrong idea about how destructive a forest fire can be in this area of the country.

Some who have seen an eastern wildfire on television news may not think that it is as destructive as the raging infernos that can ravage a western conifer forest. But McLaren said, because a conifer has resin, wax and combustible chemicals in the leaves 12 months of the year, a fire can swiftly envelop a tree from the ground to the crown, leaving only a charred landscape behind. Live deciduous trees, on the other hand, don’t burn because of the moisture in the leaves and the lack of flammable chemicals. For that reason, Kentucky forest fires usually burn along the ground, consuming the accumulated dead material on the forest floor. The trouble arises because the fire, though not killing the trees, creates an entrance for insects and diseases at their base. Over time, the trees lose quality, which has an economic impact on the timber industry in the state.

“When you drive along a highway and you see trees that are green, you don’t recognize the fact that many of those trees have extensive fire damage in them. That is the difference between a west fire and an east fire. It’s also why some people are not concerned about fires in Kentucky because ‘they leafed out. What’s the problem?’” McLaren said.

The smaller the tree, more long-term damage is done. In this part of the country, it takes 120 years for a tree to mature to harvestable size. If the tree is young when it sustains an injury, it has decades for the damage to accumulate, ultimately making it useless as a timber source.

“I’ve seen beech trees that are 30, 40, 50 inches in diameter and on the backside, people can literally walk into them and stand up inside them, and the tree is still alive,” McLaren said. “So loggers will say, even though this tree is 30 inches in diameter, we’re not going to cut it down because there’s no sound wood on the inside of this thing.”

Though the fall fire season doesn’t officially begin until Oct. 1, Kentucky woodlands are feeling the effects of the current weather conditions. On Aug. 15 alone seven wildfires were reported in the state. Holt said that is a high number of fires for late summer, when the humidity and accumulated plant moisture tend to keep fires at bay. But even with high humidity levels over the past few weeks, the lack of rainfall is having a major impact on woodlands. She warns people to be extremely cautious when they are in or near a woodland setting.

“This year is similar to 1999, another severe drought year,” she said. “We saw fires started by some unusual things, like train emissions and sparks from equipment.”

McLaren emphasized people should be aware of outdoor burning regulations. During spring and fall forest fire hazard seasons, the Division of Forestry does not permit burning within 150 feet of woodlands except between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. when humidity levels are at their highest. Holt said people should be aware of air quality and waste management regulations before conducting any outdoor burning. She recommended people not burn unless absolutely necessary.

For more information about outdoor burning regulations, contact the local extension office or visit the Kentucky Division of Forestry’s Web site, http://www.forestry.ky.gov
Homeowners who live in or near woodlands can learn ways to protect their property through the National Firewise Communities Web site, http://firewise.org.

Contact: 

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