The tradeoffs in pasture-burning were pretty clearly evident this past weekend in our little corner of the world.
Volunteers — with eventual support from Kansas Forest Service — battled five grass fires that got out of control. And the air in northeast Kansas all the way to Kansas City was particularly smoky because of those and other fires.
Those issues — particularly the air pollution — are why there’s continued pressure to somehow limit burning. Those are the downsides of burning. Proposals surface routinely to restrict or regulate burning, and yet it continues.
That’s because burning makes all sorts of practical sense for landowners in the Flint Hills.
Farmers and ranchers deliberately set fire to their land to burn off the leftover dead material from last fall and winter. That clears the way for — and stimulates — new growth, which helps livestock fatten up much more quickly. It’s proven by decades of research.
Controlled burns also help prevent major grassfires that would be caused by nature, mostly from lightning. Without the controlled burns, there’s more fuel for wildfires, which could destroy more property. Controlled burns also help get rid of invasive species like cedar trees, which might otherwise run rampant over the prairie.
Most landowners like to burn about now because it’s right before the new growth would start to kick in. Research at K-State continues to probe the effectiveness of burning at other times, or in smaller episodes, or less frequently. But for now, the vast majority takes place all at once, and all about now.
The people doing the burning generally know what they’re doing, looking for the right weather conditions to allow the fire to move along at a manageable pace, and in the right direction. This weekend’s episodes, caused by winds, make it obvious that the process is never entirely under control.
Because the window of time to burn is generally small, many fires tend to burn at once — and that’s the root of the air pollution problem. When the smoke drifts east to the Kansas City metro, it tends to set off the alarm bells of air-quality regulators. But even here, where there’s not nearly the volume of car exhaust to compound the problem, smoke and particulate in the air can cause real difficulty for people with allergies or breathing problems.
So how to solve the conundrum?
There’s no good answer at the moment, and there’s not likely to be one for some time. Entities like K-State’s Research and Extension office are geared to solving problems like these over time, through experimentation and the dissemination of information. That’s a great model for solving problems, as opposed to the way we try to solve most of our political problems, which basically involves yelling at each other.
Let’s hope good solutions and compromises emerge.