A Kansas State University range management scientist said the state’s landowners should be patting themselves on the back after a successful spring of prescribed pasture burning in the Flint Hills region.
K C Olson said the progress made in Kansas and the surrounding region is a credit to landowners learning more about how to balance wind and weather conditions with the right days to burn.
“This year, we burned more acres than is typical and we have had fewer air quality problems,” Olson said. “People are learning to interpret such things as wind direction, wind speed, mixing height…so they can be more cognizant of where that smoke is going to travel.”
As of early May, Olson reports that about 2.6 million acres of pasture were burned in Kansas, of an approximately 4 million acres that could benefit from prescribed burning.
Prescribed burning is a practice common in Kansas’ Flint Hills to preserve the health of the land, which is known as the largest tallgrass prairie in the world. The Flint Hills also supports a range of plants and wildlife, so maintaining the prairie’s health is important beyond feeding cattle.
But in past years, smoke from prescribed burning was found to settle downwind, causing air pollution problems in heavily-populated areas.
“The last big burn year was 2017 when a lot of acres were treated with prescribed fire,” Olson said. “We caused three particulate matter exceedances (as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) with Flint Hills smoke during the month of April, two of which were in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“The mayor of Lincoln at the time wrote a strongly worded letter to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment saying you need to do a better job of managing smoke.”
This year, Olson notes, there was only one problem reported by the EPA as a result of smoke-borne particulate matter, occurring in an Oklahoma county.
The number of incidents is down despite the fact that Kansas landowners burned 600,000 more acres than two years ago.
“We are not perfect yet by any means, but we are slowly learning how to direct those plumes of smoke away from urban centers,” Olson said.
“The other thing I’d point out that’s quite remarkable is that there weren’t many good burning days in April. The wind conditions were awful much of the time, and it was a wet spring. In spite of the fact that we had some environmental imitations, we were still able to direct those good burning days in a way that we could be good neighbors.”
Olson credited the leadership of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment: “They don’t dictate when fires happen, but certainly they are the ones that fall on the sword for all of us when complaints come in, and they are the ones that are tasked with modeling where our smoke winds up, and under what atmospheric conditions that smoke might become a particulate problem.”
Olson said that such groups as the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance and the Kansas Livestock Association have been instrumental in educating landowners on the best practices for prescribed burning. And landowners have routinely used the website, ksfire.org, to understand wind and weather conditions in planning their prescribed burns.
“Everybody that I have talked to that is a prescribed burner, relies heavily on that website,” Olson said. “It’s what I’d call a one-stop shop for prescribed burning. Learning some of those weather nuances and being able to look at a map that predicts the direction that your smoke plume is going to travel is way more information than what we had five years ago. There’s been enough publicity and education that I think it should be a bookmarked website for everyone who manages prescribed fire in this state.”
Despite this year’s success, Olson cautions landowners to remain diligent in following recommended practices.
“Should we give everybody a pat on the back? You bet. We hear about it loud and clear when we mess up, but we don’t hear the same thing when we succeed,” he said. “With the progress we’ve made over the last two years, I am extremely hopeful that we are going to make even more progress in years to come, and we are going to cease to have this as one of the top five problems to manage in the next decade.”