Karl Brooks: Burning plan balances ecology, public health

03/27/2014 12:00 AM

03/26/2014 5:19 PM

Much-needed moisture in eastern Kansas the past two winters has set the stage for a more typical Flint Hills tallgrass pasture burn scenario in 2014. More growth on these grasslands, vital to the Kansas livestock industry, boosts the potential for higher smoke emissions than we have seen for a while.

For burns to be conducted safely and effectively, weather and rangeland conditions must be right. Keeping smoke from pasture burns from causing air-quality problems around urban areas such as Wichita and Kansas City depends on individuals planning their burns this spring to make informed decisions. Fortunately, Kansas and the Environmental Protection Agency, working in partnership for the past couple of years with a wide range of stakeholders throughout the Flint Hills, have shown how good stewardship should reduce the impacts of smoke on downwind communities.

It will be important for the Kansas Flint Hills ranchers and land managers to take advantage of the modeling tools on the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management website, ksfire.org, to determine when weather conditions are best for burning in relation to air-quality impacts. A mobile-device version is also available to provide more accessibility to the information. The EPA’s Region 7 encourages ranchers and land managers to take advantage of these resources to spread out their burns more effectively to manage the potential air-quality impacts.

The EPA appreciates the stakeholders’ efforts in forming key partnerships, implementing the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s support of the ksfire.org website. The plan is designed to support public health, the tallgrass ecosystem and agriculture, and to sustain the need for fire as a management tool. Kansans devised this reasonable, homegrown, science-based policy that acknowledges the important role of agricultural burning. Ultimately, best burn practices can help reduce impacts on air quality.

The committee responsible for developing the plan was co-chaired by Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick; Rep. Tom Moxley, R-Council Grove; and John Mitchell, director of KDHE’s Division of Environment. Its wide range of stakeholders included the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Office of the State Fire Marshal, Kansas Division of Emergency Management, Kansas Forest Service, Kansas State University, city of Wichita, Johnson County, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Farm Bureau, Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, county extension offices, the Nature Conservancy, American Lung Association (Wichita), Kansas Prescribed Fire Council/Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Kansas State Firefighters Association, Kansas Emergency Managers Association, Audubon of Kansas, and the Kansas Forage and Grassland Council.

Clean air is one of our most precious resources. Since 2004, the EPA has been working with Kansans to explore approaches to burning that would reduce the impacts of ozone and particulate matter on public health. When large amounts of acreage are burned in a condensed period of time, unhealthy levels of particulate matter and substances that can form ozone are released into the air. These pollutants can affect the respiratory systems of all who breathe in the smoke, especially children with asthma, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing heart or lung diseases.

The goal of this important partnership and smoke management plan is to balance public health impacts with the ecological and economical need for prescribed burning.

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