Cottonwood Falls A computer program being tested this spring in two Kansas counties might play a major role in a controversy over whether the annual spring burning in the Flint Hills causes too much smoke and air quality problems in urban areas.
As part of a pilot project, ranchers in Chase and Greenwood counties will test a predictive computer modeling tool and fire management practices that are part of the new Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan.
"If this voluntary system is successful, we may be able to avoid having any type of mandatory regulations on prescribed burning in the Flint Hills," Carol Blocksome, K-State Research and Extension range management researcher, told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
The smoke management plan, approved in December by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and more than 80 stakeholders, allows ranchers to continue burning grasslands in the spring. But it restricts other burning in 12 counties in the Flint Hills and four near Kansas City and Wichita.
The restrictions include land clearing debris, crop residues, construction debris, yard waste and other materials in Butler, Chase, Chautauqua, Cowley, Elk, Geary, Greenwood, Johnson, Lyon, Marion, Morris, Pottawatomie, Riley, Sedgwick, Wabaunsee and Wyandotte counties.
The annual burning of the prairie prevents trees and woody plants from growing in the prairie grass, improves productivity of the rangeland and helps cattle who feed on the grass. But smoke from the burning in April can drift to Kansas City or Wichita, causing problems with ozone levels.
Mike Holder, Flint Hills Extension agent in Chase County, said about half of the Flint Hills' 4 million acres of native grassland are burned each spring.
The best time to burn the Flint Hills grassland is mid-March through late April. In part because of concern that the Environmental Protection Agency might impose stricter air quality regulations, ranchers are beginning to consider smoke management when they decide whether to burn.
As part of the pilot program, ranchers will log on to www.ksfire.org and use modeling tools and a decision support system to predict where the smoke might go on a specific day and the effect it will have on air quality, Holder said.
The website also contains information about the smoke management plan, burning regulations in Flint Hills counties, current burn bans and fire management procedures.
The modeling tools and decision support systems will be tested for two to four years, and could be operational for everyone in five years, Blocksome said.