Environment

Kentucky is poised to have a below-average year for spring wildfires with fewer than three weeks left in the season, that is, if people continue to avoid purposely setting the forest on fire. 

The state’s fire management chief with the Division of Forestry says favorable weather conditions and a lower than average number of arsons have so far contributed to the decline.

“We have started to cut down on our arson fires and debris fires,” said Michael Froelich, with the division of forestry. “We have been doing a lot more of teaching the public of what to look for and to see what’s out there.”

Arson is the single largest cause of wildfires in the state, responsible for 65% of all fires over

Kentucky Division of Forestry

the last decade, according to the Division of Forestry. Arsonists have lit at least 217 wildfires this year, which may sound like a lot — but Froelich says that’s less than usual.

It would be easy to assume the figures include people who accidentally leave a campfire or a debris pile unchecked, but they don’t. Campfire ignitions have made up fewer than 1% of wildfires over the last decade, while out-of-control debris piles have caused about 22% of fires — second to arson as the leading cause. 

What’s motivating the rest of the firebugs? Froelich said it’s hard to get inside the head of an arsonist.

“A lot of them do it for the excitement to watch people come and put it out,” he said. “Some people do it to kill insects, some people do it to open it up for hunting purposes.”   

Unlike fires out West where tens of thousands of acres can burn in a single day, Kentucky’s wildfires are significantly more limited. Most burn between 10 and 20 acres. Around a half dozen fires have burned over 100 acres this year. 

Spring forest fire hazard season runs from Feb. 15 through April 30, and about 13,000 acres burn on average. This year, fewer than 9,000 acres have been lost to fire.

The hardwoods that makeup much of Kentucky’s forests are most at-risk of catching fire in fall and spring, when there’s less humidity and no canopy to block the light from drying out the leaf litter on the forest floor — increasing the risk of ground fires.

Froelich says educating the public and interagency cooperation with state fish and wildlife officials has helped to cut down on the number of wildfires. To report a wildland arsonist, call 1-800-27-ARSON

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.