Burning the Flint Hills

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May 22, 2011 - 7:00pm

Controlled burning of the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas goes back generations. The fresh grass that springs up after the burning is good for cattle, helping them add weight more easily.
But the smoke, which can travel long distances, drifts into larger metropolitan areas, including Topeka and Kansas City. The fires which encompass more than 1.5 million of the Flint Hills' nearly 5 million acres are actually the biggest contributor to April pollution issues in eastern Kansas.
Back in 2003, environment officials in Kansas first took notice of pollution and ozone issues in metropolitan areas resulting from the burning. Since then, they say a national lowering of acceptable ozone levels and a greater general awareness for clean air likely contributed to greater attention.
Follow-up work led to the voluntary Smoke Management Plan, implemented for the first time this year.
"The smoke management program that the state of Kansas developed collaboratively with a number of stakeholders in Kansas seeks to allow the continuance of the rangeland burning to preserve the tallgrass prairie while trying to minimize the downwind impacts on communities like Kansas City and Wichita and other communities in terms of air pollution," said Josh Tapp, air planning chief for the Environmental Protection Agency in the Midwest.
The EPA is one of those stakeholders looking to provide best practices information to land owners.
The plan's website, ksfire.org, provides a wealth of information on fire and pollution. Modeling tools and detailed weather reports allow producers to see how burning on a particular day will affect those downwind.
Getting the word out about the plan and the website was the first step for year one.
It's too early to tell exactly how well the plan worked this year, but on separate April days, ozone levels in both Wichita and Topeka exceeded national pollution standards. Watkins Mill, outside of Kansas City, Mo., also registered an April day of exceeding ozone standards.
These violations are the exact thing the management plan looks to avoid.
Tom Gross, with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Bureau of Air, said a wet 2010 contributed to more intense fires this year, but ozone levels in metro areas can vary wildly from year to year.
"We've received more complaints this year than we have in previous years and I don't know whether it's because there's been much more public discussion and debate about the issue," Gross said.
He said higher ozone levels occur more often in the summer, during hot, calm days. Because the Flint Hills fires are spread out and occur at ground level, they're difficult to compare with other pollution emitters like smoke stacks.
The 200 miles of prairie land is also difficult to compare with other land burnings. It's the largest continuous tallgrass prairie in the world, and Tapp said mowing or herbicide use on the rocky land aren't practical strategies.
Burning during other times of the year and rotational burning are other alternatives being studied to avoid elevated pollution levels.
It may be unfair for the Flint Hills to take all the heat this year.
There's speculation that increased wild fires in Texas, Oklahoma and even Mexico are contributing to hazy, polluted April skies in Kansas. Tapp says that smoke from past fires in Mexico has been detected all the way up into Canada.
But as the Flint Hills fire season draws to a close, Greenwood County Extension agent Jeff Davidson said he's pleased with the response from county land owners to the management plan. Just east of Wichita, Greenwood County burns roughly 500,000 acres, the most of any county in the state. Officials will need a couple months to analyze all the data collected to get a better picture of the plan's effectiveness.
Another Kansas county that lies downwind of the Flint Hills smoke has an interesting perspective on the burning.
Johnson County, part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, is the most populated county in Kansas with more than 540,000 people. But about 45 percent of the county's land is still used for agriculture, said Johnson County Kansas State Extension agent Rick Miller.
Miller describes it as "an extremely unique position." He said there's always a constant struggle to understand issues related to both urban and rural populations; and the fires help highlight those issues.
"If your livelihood is not farming and you don't have a real good understanding or education on why a farmer burns, then you may not understand why that would be a challenge for them not to do that every year," Miller said. "That farmer also may not understand totally why it's important in an urban area that we maintain our air quality standards for all the thousands of people that live here."
The fires themselves can be a spectacle for those driving through the area. Emporia State professor of art and photography Larry Schwarm has spent the past 20 years documenting the flames. Although he's experienced the smoky haze, Schwarm understands the necessity of the fire.
"I love the Flint Hills. It's one of my favorite places on earth," Schwarm said. "And if it wasn't for the fires the Flint Hills wouldn't exist as we know them."

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