Plume over Wichita spurs review of Flint Hills smoke plan

04/04/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:03 AM

The smoke that filled the skies over Wichita on March 24 and 25 may have been a fluke.

Or the smoke might signal that more needs to be done to keep our air clean.

The plume of smoke will be a topic of discussion when a new smoke management plan is examined at the end of this month, officials say.

"We'll go back and do a postmortem analysis of what happened during this burn season once it's over," said Josh Tapp of the smoke management division of the Environmental Protection Agency. "We'll collect all the data and evaluate if the smoke plan is being effective or needs to be revised or improved."

Mike Holder, Chase County extension agent, helped coordinate the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan — the pilot project allowing ranchers to continue to burn their grasslands without smoking out their urban neighbors.

"Unfortunately, right off the bat, it didn't work," Holder said. "We've yet to see whether this will work all the time."

Open burning in certain areas of the state has been restricted during the month of April.

It includes burning brush, trash and lagoons, firefighter training and other burns.

But it doesn't include the large range burning, where ranchers and other landowners restore fields, pastures and prairie by setting them on fire.

Tapp said the plan tries to encourage people who would have burned ranges in April to start earlier in March.

"When you do that, hopefully, you cut down lower concentration in larger population centers, because you'd have fewer burns on any given day," Tapp said.

When the weather was right for burning, a lot of people in Wichita may have started the day under smoke-filled skies more than a week ago.

On March 24, there were some 60 controlled burns in Sedgwick County, as well as others in surrounding areas.

"Everybody is doing the best they can with this smoke management plan," Holder said. "There will be days like last week when even though we minimize the burning, we could have some air quality problems in urban areas."

The point of the smoke management plan, however, was to reduce effects of smoke in places like Wichita and Kansas City.

The smoke over Wichita, however, didn't appear to cause many health problems.

The hourly pollution readings for bigger particles, such as soot, jumped from a reading of 20 parts per million volumes of air to more than 140.

That remained under the 150 reading that the EPA considers dangerous.

A 140 reading could have affected people sensitive to smoke, such as those with asthma or the elderly.

Spokespeople for Via Christi Health and Wesley Medical Center said they saw no increase in patients coming to emergency rooms with respiratory problems.

The EPA suggests that people stay indoors on smoky days and not participate in strenuous outdoor activities such as running or mowing the lawn.

"And you need to make sure the air in your indoor environment is clean, too, especially if you're sensitive," Tapp said.

But the number of fires on March 24 and 25 wasn't abnormal for Kansas this time of year.

On March 25, Chase County had 19 fires burning over 20,000 acres.

Butler County, where the majority of the smoke that drifted over Wichita came from, had 35 controlled burns.

That's not a large number, Holder said, considering that Chase County alone has been known to have as many as 60 controlled fires covering 80,000 acres on some spring days.

Others say conditions seemed right for burning.

"It may have been just a coincidence," said Bryan Holmgren, Sedgwick County spokesman.

The bans also aim to control ozone levels or smog in the air.

Ozone is the number one pollutant problem for Wichita.

In April 2009 and April 2010, Wichita experienced one-day events of high levels of ozone due to Flint Hills burning that exceeded the national standard.

The restrictions are needed to help the city stay in compliance with the national ozone standard.

Ozone also forms on days with little or no wind, hot temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Sunlight cooks the emissions given off by burning fuels in cars and factories to form smog.

If monitors in Wichita soar above the recommended ozone level, the city could face new regulations regarding manufacturing and industry and future highway expansions could be limited, according to a news release issued Thursday by Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp.

For consumers, it could increase energy costs and limit the time they can spend idling their vehicles and the speeds they travel on highways and expressways, city officials say.

The Wichita Fire Department is enforcing an open burning ban.

No new burn permits will be issued, and all previously issued burn permits will be suspended through May 1.

The Wichita Fire Department will have no live fire training during that time, and residents have been prohibited from using decorative outdoor chimineas and fire rings.

People can still use their barbecue grills, have ceremonial fires or conduct open burns for crop, range, pasture, wildlife or watershed management.

The flames at the Keeper of the Plains Plaza are considered ceremonial and will continue, said Kay Johnson, manager of the office of environmental initiatives for the city of Wichita.

Spring is traditionally a time when farmers burn pasture in Kansas, especially in the Flint Hills.

Agriculture experts estimate that over the next few weeks — until the end of April — nearly three-quarters of the 4.5 million acres of native tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills will be set on fire.

"We gotta burn our grasslands," Holder said.

The fires keep the prairies fresh, preventing the grass from growing over with invading plants.

They help rid the prairie of hedge, thorny locust, sumac and red cedar. Plus, cattle gain more weight from grazing the new grass that quickly springs up over the burned prairie than that which is left unburned, Holder said.

Grass fires can be expected throughout Kansas but particularly in the Flint Hills, where it has become an annual tradition — in Chase, Lyon, Marion, Morris, Wabaunsee, Geary, Riley, Greenwood, Butler, Elk, Chautauqua and Pottawatomie counties.

To help reduce air quality problems in urban areas, farmers and ranchers can voluntarily take part in a pilot program that combines computer modeling from Kansas State University and fire management practices.

Farmers and ranchers doing burns can visit to check current weather conditions and see what direction the smoke from their burn will travel and how it will disperse.

"When the weather conditions are right, it isn't going to take much smoke to cause problems in an urban area," Holder said.

"The year following a drought there won't be as much dry grass to burn," he said. "But last year was a good year so there will be a lot of dry grass to burn.

"We are anticipating there will be quite a bit of burning going on."

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