In the Flint Hills, life doesn’t start with photosynthesis. It starts with fire.
The health of North America’s largest stand of tallgrass prairie depends on two things – grazing and burning, says Jim Hoy, who has lived in the Flint Hills most of his life.
Drought has prevented ranchers from burning off the prairie the past couple of springs. They’ll be making up for that this year.
This is expected to be a big year for burning, which could affect air quality in cities including Wichita. Two major factors are at play: the drought that plagued Kansas the past couple of years and heavy rains in late summer and fall last year that made the prairie shoot up taller.
“There’s a lot of old grass out there,” Hoy said.
Hoy operates a small ranch near Cassoday and said he plans to burn off tallgrass prairie this spring. His son, Josh, who has a larger ranch near Clements in Chase County, also will burn.
“We’re going to burn almost all 7,000 acres this year,” Josh Hoy said Monday. “That counts my dad’s down at Cassoday, too. It’s been three years sine we’ve burned much of anything.”
The state launched two smoke modeling tools March 1 that ranchers can consult to determine how burning might affect air quality in downwind areas. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment typically rolls out the smoke modeling tools, which use information about wind direction and speeds and map out where ozone air monitors are located, in mid-March.
The tools, available at www.ksfire.org, as part of the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management consortium, is not meant to be used for fire safety purposes. Rather, ranchers are encouraged to check voluntarily to determine how burning might affect air quality on a given day.
There are two forecast models. One produces a color-coded map that predicts how burning in the Flint Hills will affect air quality in urban areas over a two-day period. The model assumes several fires will take place at the same time in the Flint Hills and uses emission rates from burn days in past years when air quality in downwind cities exceeded air quality standards, the management website explains. Green means that fires in a specific county will have a minimal impact on air quality in cities downwind. Yellow means burning could have an impact on air quality. Red means burning probably will affect air quality.
A second model allows users to input data such as where a burn is located, the number of acres to be burned and the estimated fuel load – light, average or heavy – to generate a map that shows where the smoke will move during a 48-hour period.
Josh Hoy said he consults the models and tries to burn when doing so will have the least impact on air quality downwind.
“You bet,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to burn no matter what. But most everyone tries to do it right.”
He expected to burn the last week of March or first week of April.
“It depends on how much rain we get from now until then, but that should be the sweet spot,” Josh Hoy said.
Some ranchers are burning already, he said.
“We saw smoke on the horizon in two different spots this morning,” he said.
Josh Hoy and his wife run a guest ranch, Flying W Ranch, and have planned their Flames in the Flint Hills event on April 5. It gives people the chance to participate in burning and educates them about prairie management. More information is available at www.flinthillsflyingw.com. Click on “Flames in the Flint Hills” under the “Upcoming Events” menu.
Doug Watson, a meteorologist for KDHE’s Bureau of Air, said some counties in the Flint Hills require ranchers to get a permit to burn and some don’t.
“All the counties are kind of different that way. Some counties are really strict and some you don’t have to have a burn permit,” Watson said.
Bad air quality can be harmful to some people, especially babies and children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues.
“If you’re in a smoky environment, obviously you don’t want to be in it very long because it’s not very good for your lungs,” said Ashton Rucker, a spokesman for KDHE.
Burning can release particulate matter and substances that can form ozone in the air. Particulates can get into your eyes and respiratory system, “where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, coughing and illnesses such as bronchitis,” a news release from KHDE said.
Asthma patients may especially struggle on burn days, as may people with heart or lung diseases.
Tonya Bronleewe, environmental quality specialist for Wichita, said increased burning this spring “could increase our ozone and take us over our limits, but we’re hoping that won’t happen.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for air quality. Wichita has been teetering on the edge of noncompliance with those standards for years.
The city issues ozone alerts on bad air quality days, encouraging people to gas up their vehicles and mow when it’s cool and to carpool, bike or use public transportation.
“Last year we had a great year,” Bronleewe said. “We didn’t have any exceedances. We had a cooler summer, and we had lots of rains and clouds in July.”
The city’s air quality is judged on a three-year average.
“The previous summers were so hot and sunny that our three-year average” took a hit, Bronleewe said.
However, the city was not judged to be out of attainment because the standards were, and still are, being reviewed. The EPA also did not count bad air quality from burning in the Flint Hills against the city. Bronleewe said the city doesn’t “expect to get a pass. It has happened in the past. They’ve counted those days as extraordinary circumstances.”
To help air quality during the Flint Hills burning season, Sedgwick and Butler counties are under a burn ban in April, along with Chase, Chautauqua, Cowley, Elk, Geary, Greenwood, Johnson, Lyon, Marion, Morris, Pottawatomie, Riley, Wabaunsee and Wyandotte counties.
The ban includes open burning of any waste such as vegetation, wood, construction materials and structures.
In Sedgwick County, burns for crop, range and wildlife or watershed management still will be allowed next month but will require a permit. Permits from Sedgwick County Fire District 1 may be requested online at www.sedgwickcounty.org or by calling 316-660-3473.
Sedgwick County residents should call 911 before burning anything.