A major goal of the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan would be to reduce the number of times burning contributes to cities, such as Wichita and Kansas City, exceeding ozone standards.
Fire Management Benefits Urban and Rural Kansans
Much of the central United States was once covered in grass and wildflowers. Less than 4 percent of the nation’s tallgrass prairie remains and 80 percent of what’s left can be found in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
Mike Collinge lives and raises cattle in the Flint Hills, and he is working with K-State Research and Extension to preserve the beauty and function of the native rangeland through effective burning practices.
“We don’t burn just to make the ground black,” stated Collinge. “Proper use of prescribed fire has many benefits. It reduces weeds and brush in pastures; decreases the need for fertilizer and herbicides, which can kill beneficial plants along with undesirable ones; and enhances habitat for wildlife and game birds.
“As a rancher, a major benefit is that properly maintained grassland increases weight gain for cattle. Cattle grazing grass after a prescribed fire usually gain 25 pounds more than those grazing unburned grass. It can easily make a $10 to $20 per acre difference between pastures that get burned and the ones that don’t.”
Fire has been an effective management tool for thousands of years, but proximity to urban areas and highways, along with stricter air-quality regulations has increased the need to educate ranchers, firefighters, media, businesses, and medical personnel about the benefits and timing of controlled fires.
Greenwood County, where Collinge lives, has about 500,000 acres of tallgrass prairie with approximately 50 percent of those acres burned at least once every three years.
“April is usually the optimum time to use prescribed fire,” Collinge said. “We feel fortunate if we can safely and effectively burn 15 to 20 days during the month. We are close to Highway 99, so I have to make sure the smoke won’t drift across the road. A successful prescribed fire takes tremendous prior planning to have the equipment and manpower ready, then we have to make a decision on the spot.”
Collinge consults with Jeff Davidson, agriculture and natural resources agent in his county, and is the rancher representative on the KDHE Smoke Management Plan Committee. Davidson and Mike Holder, Flint Hills District agent (Morris and Chase counties); K-State agronomists Carol Blocksome, Walt Fick, and Clenton Owensby; and K-State geographer Doug Goodin are working on a comprehensive smoke management plan.
Many factors influence when pasture can be burned. How many acres need to be burned, temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed must be considered before the fire is lit. The smoke management plan will incorporate those factors as well as the EPA-mandated ozone monitors for Kansas City and Wichita.
A prototype of the smoke management plan will be available in spring 2011. The plan includes a decision support model that will map areas where burning may produce air-quality problems downwind. This information will be used by county fire officials and emergency managers to make recommendations about local burning based on smoke management considerations.
“The Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are looking to us to get information in the hands of producers and other decision makers,” Fick stated.