Kentucky’s wildfire season has only just begun and already fires are scorching parts of the state including a popular tourist attraction at Red River Gorge.
Hot, dry weather over the last two months has left much of the state in a moderate to severe drought. The conditions have stripped much of the moisture from the state’s forests as leaves begin to fall from trees, creating additional fuel for fires to burn.
“Drought conditions on top of unseasonably hot weather… that’s a recipe for wildfires,” said Kimberly Bonaccorso, Daniel Boone National Forest spokeswoman.
The state’s forestry division recorded 107 wildfires in September, a month that typically doesn’t see any fires. And only two days into October, five fires are burning across the state, according to Kentucky’s Wildland Fire Management.
Last weekend, embers from a campfire on a ridge at Red River Gorge leapt over the cliffside burning the area around the Sky Bridge — a natural sandstone arch with scenic views of the national forest. The fire is still burning; firefighters have drawn up containment lines and expect the fire to burn about 125 acres before it’s extinguished, Bonaccorso said.
Officials have not found any suspects in that case and say the attraction will remain closed until the fire has been put out.
Another larger fire is burning in Pulaski County. That fire burned about 200 acres as of Tuesday, but is likely to double in size before firefighters can reign it in, Bonaccorso said.
Officials believe that fire started on private land before moving into parts of the state forest. Humans cause the vast majority of fires in Kentucky.
“The longer we go without rain, the greater the risk is for a wildfire to occur,” Bonaccorso said. “And that’s what we are starting to see at this point.”
The fall forest fire hazard season officially began October 1 and runs through mid-December. Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet has established a command post to monitor the unusually extreme fire season.
A majority of the state’s counties issued burn bans on Wednesday. Fires are also banned at Kentucky national forests, except in designated areas.
Meanwhile, forestry officials are asking residents to take care in avoiding outdoor flames, because even a spark could be enough to start a fire given the dry conditions.
“We still have a lot of leaves to come down off the trees and that’s when our fire seasons usually kick up,” said Steve Kull, assistant director at the Kentucky Division of Forestry. “So what burns right now could typically burn again after all the leaves drop.”
Longer, drier summers and an increase in the frequency of extreme events are consistent with the scientific understanding of how climate change impacts Kentucky.
The drought has not only provided fuel for wildfires in the state, it’s also encouraged the growth of toxic blue-green algae along a 300-mile stretch of the Ohio River.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humans need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.