April is the month of fire and smoke on the Kansas prairie as ranchers across the Flint Hills undertake the annual ritual of clearing dead grass, weeds and woody shrubs from native pastures with fire.
It's a process that for thousands of years has maintained the unique eco-system of the Tallgrass prairie. Before white settlement, the Native Americans burned the pastures in the spring because the immediate regrowth of new, green grass rich in nutrients drew the buffalo.
Before that, wildfires were the management tool of nature to keep the prairie ecosystem in place.
With the arrival of white settlers, the vast prairies to the east were plowed up to plant crops. In Kansas, the prairie proved too filled with limestone rock too close to the surface to plow, so the grass was maintained and the agricultural industry became cattle ranching rather than farming. Today, more than 90% of the remaining Tallgrass Prairie in North America lies in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
In recent years, there have been challenges to the burning that plays such a critical role in preserving the prairie because drifting smoke can threaten the air quality of population centers miles from the Flint Hills.
To help reduce that impact, the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was developed.
As this year's burn season gets into full swing, the Kansas Livestock Association is urging landowners and managers to spread out the timing of burns and minimize impacts by using the tools available on www.ksfire.org.
Interactive smoke models on this website are designed to help Flint Hills ranchers voluntarily mitigate air quality problems in downwind communities with larger populations. This and other steps included in the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan are intended to help the ranching community avoid more strict regulation in the future.
There are two smoke forecast models available. The Cumulative Fire Impact map shows the predicted potential smoke contributions from each county to air quality in urban areas. It is based on the assumption that multiple fires will be occurring simultaneously across the Flint Hills.
The second model shows the direction and extent of the predicted plume from a single burn. Users select a county where the burn is located, provide the number of acres to be burned and estimate the fuel load. An animated display shows movement of the smoke plume over the next 48 hours.
A discussion of weather conditions also is available. This allows ranchers to evaluate whether better days for burning lie ahead.