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A drought is fueling wildfires across Kentucky

A wildfire in Estill County on Nov. 8, 2022.
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

A drought in Kentucky is fueling an increased number of wildfires compared to last fall’s fire season, according to the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

Ahead of the rains last week, officials with the Division of Forestry reported 52 active fires across the state covering more than 6,000 acres. Smoke from two of the largest fires burning in Estill County produced haze in Lexington and affected air quality as far away as Louisville.    

“We rely on some moisture coming up in the evening to help slow fires down, but that moisture isn't there because of the drought,” said Steve Kull, senior environmental scientist with the Division of Forestry. “This year was drier so yeah, we had a lot more fires in October than we normally would have.” 

Fall is typically one of the drier seasons in Kentucky, but as of last week all of Kentucky was in a moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor. More than 15,700 acres have burned so far this fire season. 

As autumn settles in, trees lose their leaves and the sun shines through to the forest floor creating conditions for wildfires. 

The fall wildfire season typically runs from the beginning of October through December 15th, but this year fires began even earlier, Kull said. 

As of last Thursday, crews had contained at least 32 of the blazes. Kull said the Division of Forestry staff who are fighting the uncontained fires are exhausted and are receiving support  from fire crews from other states including Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas.

“Rural fire departments, and there’s a lot of them out there, they’re up throughout the night protecting structures and responding to fires and helping us there too,” Kull said. 

Unlike out West, where dry lightning storms can spark fires, the majority of fires in Kentucky are started by people. Most are the result of arson. Others are sparked through carelessness, or by accident, Kull said. 

A spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service said eastern Kentucky is experiencing some of the driest conditions in over a decade and people should take care to prevent wildfires from sparking. 

“It’s important that both our forest visitors and residents of our neighboring communities take precautions to ensure that fires, whether from campfires or debris burning, are completely out before leaving them unattended,” Tim Eling, Daniel Boone National Forest spokesperson said in a press release.  

Kull with the Division of Forestry said the moisture over the weekend were likely to help. 


Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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