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Released: February 25, 2008

New Web-Based Smoke Management System Being Tested At K-State
    System Holds Promise For Prescribed Burn Season

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Every spring, smoke from prescribed burns on the Flint Hills has the potential to affect air quality in eastern Kansas and surrounding states.

A new method of smoke modeling is being researched by a Kansas State University team led by Jay Ham, professor of agronomy. This new method could help manage the extent and impact of smoke plumes from the Flint Hills.

BlueSkyRAINS, a web-based information system that has been used in the Pacific Northwest to monitor smoke from prescribed forest burns, is being tweaked to work for burns on the prairie by Ham, who specializes in environmental physics and micrometeorology. Ham is working on the system with Clenton Owensby and Walt Fick, professors of agronomy; Pat Coyne, researcher at K-State’s Agricultural Research Center-Hays; Doug Goodin, professor of geography; and Bill Hargrove, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment.

Ham explained that there are two components to BlueSkyRAINS. “BlueSky” is a computer model developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to predict the impacts of smoke from prescribed, wildland, and agricultural fires. “RAINS” (Rapid Access Information System) is a Geographic Information System product of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Forest Service merged the two products into BlueSkyRAINS.

The computer modeling system has the potential to be a valuable aid to rangeland managers in Kansas, where the use of controlled fire is critical, Ham said.

“Prescribed burns in the Flint Hills are important for the prairie ecosystem and the Kansas cattle industry,” he said. “Spring burning suppresses invasive woody shrubs and reduces mulch and residue, increasing the productivity of the grassland. As more grass grows, cattle weight gains increase, which helps the producer and the economy.”

Prescribed burning does have a downside -- smoke.

“In the spring of 2003, all Flint Hills producers burned their land at the same time due to weather conditions. A large smoke plume was created; the plume traveled over Kansas City and into Missouri. Results were seen even as far as Tennessee and northern Iowa. The smoke decreased urban air quality causing an ozone spike in Kansas City,” Ham said.

By using BlueSkyRAINS, land managers, regulators, and the general public can view the potential smoke impacts from regional burning activities, such as prescribed burns on the Flint Hills, before the fires occur. With input such as the location, time of day, and acreage to be burned, the system then animates the projected smoke plume. It can determine downwind smoke concentrations, potential public health alerts, visibility, if roads may be affected, and other effects, Ham explained.

“These predictions help managers make the best decision about when to burn,” he said.

K-State is the first organization to expand this technology beyond its use in forestry.

“It’s an expensive undertaking, but the goal is for anyone to be able to log onto the Internet and see if it is safe to burn. If the technology can be successfully implemented, the EPA may not have to step in to regulate burns, and ranchers could rest assured that their burns won’t create liability issues like traffic accidents and wildfires,” Ham said.

He and fellow researchers at K-State have just received a three-year grant to research the potential of BlueSkyRAINS in a prairie ecosystem.

“Burning prairie is very different than burning forests. Also, Kansas topography and climate are different than in the Pacific Northwest, so the model needs to be fined-tuned to make the readings accurate and useful. The technology will hopefully be ready for use by those in the Flint Hills at the end of the three years,” Ham said.

More information on BlueSkyRAINS is available: http://www.blueskyrains.org.

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Katie Starzec
kstarzec@ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Jay Ham is at 785-532-6119 or jayham@ksu.edu.