Where there is smoke, there is fire, and this time of year it’s often a prairie fire. The last days of March are annually the heaviest days of burning as ranchers prepare fields for summer growth.
The controversial practice of ag burning is used by Flint Hills ranchers and other landowners to invigorate the soil and grow thicker, healthier grass for cattle. The smoke that is produced by the burn can get into the atmosphere and can temporarily affect the air quality in urban areas like Kansas City or Wichita. Complaints have come from as far east as Tennessee. Much of that air pollution stems from burning brush, instead of grass.
Rod Harms, a 17-year prairie burn veteran, is used to the heat. He maintains 130 acres of grassland near the Anneberg Park area of Wildcat Creek.
Harms said the practice is safe and that the air quality problem is a necessary evil.
He believes people need to focus on the big picture.
“Instead of not looking at the one or two days of spike, (we) need to look at the 10-year picture,” Harms said.
There are several initiatives to monitor the nearly 90,000 acres that are burned annually in Riley County alone, said Riley County Emergency Management Director Pat Collins.
The county sends out burn permits as early as December to anyone who bought a burn permit the previous year. They can also be ordered from the county’s website.
Prior to burning, burners have to call the Riley County Emergency Management to make sure they can burn that day. If it is after-hours, the call will go to the Riley County Police Department.
A landowner can be denied permission to burn if weather conditions are not favorable, or if there are not enough firefighters or trucks available, Collins said.
The Riley County Fire Department is staffed primarily through volunteers, and sometimes firefighters are unable to get out as quickly as needed.
“There are about 160 to 170 firefighters, all volunteers,” Collins said. “Our average response time across county is 10 minutes. But most of them have jobs or school, and it takes them a good while to get to these fires.”
Once he is done burning, Harms said he makes another call and the dispatcher sends someone out to make sure that another fire has not flared up.
Collins said they used to put on classes to teach safe burning practices, but participation waned.
“We did not do one this year,” Collins said. “We had like three people show up. People who are obvious misusers of fires, we try and get them in to one of these classes.”
State statutes stipulate that the person starting a fire is responsible for its control. Collins noted that a man in the northern part of the county has sued people over fire damage to his walnut trees.
With help from two other young men, Harms uses a propane torch to burn his 130-acre property.
He only burns his property when the wind is blowing at such a direction that the smoke will not drift to nearby residential areas. He also lets the wind guide his burn. He will burn the front part of a patch of grass and let the wind blow the fire across the field. The technique is called back burning. Harms said the fire will die out on its own. Harms’ land is filled with rocks and ledges, which act as natural extinguishers to the flame.
Once burned. the property is leased out to an area rancher whose cattle graze on the grass during the summer.
Ag burning has more purposes than simply creating better feed for the cattle.
Burning the dry grass in a controlled way also decreases the chance that a wildfire will break out.
Collins said a chain dragging on the road, sparks from a flat tire, lightning strikes, or a lit cigarette can all spark wildfires.
“The green grass won’t burn like the old grass,” Collins said. There is more moisture in the green grass.
Riley County burns several sections of county-owned property near residential developments every year to reduce the risk of a wildfire.
“We have had fires in the past,” Collins said. Far from presenting a danger to the people, Collins said the practice of burning the land is an advantage.
“You can prevent them from having wildfires,” he said.