Prescribed Prairie Fires in Flint Hills Come With Ag Benefits and Dirty Air

March 9, 2021, 12:17 p.m. ·

Prescribed fire in the Flint Hills of Kansas. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

In the next few weeks, huge, prescribed burns will take place in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma, the last tall grass ecosystem left in the United States. The burns send thick smoke north to Nebraska, but also help get rid of invasive plants that could overtake the prairie. They also improve the quality of forage for cattle. It’s a balance between nurturing an ecosystem and preserving the air.

For farmer Ken Yates in Hallam, just south of Lincoln in Lancaster County, this isn’t his favorite time of year. After a suspected case of COVID-19 last April, he’s not looking forward to smoky air.

“I’m bracing for this year’s onslaught,“ Yates said. “Thank God my lungs are a little better.”

UNL researcher Dirac Twidwell. (Photo courtesy of UNL)

Yates farms around 100 acres of hay and never uses fire to keep out invasive plants. Instead, he mows and clips out the woody plants. For him, it’s about the environment.

“Fire is definitely wonderful and control, oh my God. I’d love to burn my farm too to get rid of them, but I won’t do it to our planet,” Yates said.

Last year, more than 2.6 million acres of grassland burned in the Flint Hills, which led to ten days of moderate air quality in Nebraska and one day of unhealthy air. But prescribed burns make economic sense for producers in Kansas and Oklahoma.

“It is the most economically viable approach to maintaining large areas of prairie,” said Dirac Twidwell, an associate professor of horticulture and agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If you go to an alternative management type in order to keep woody plants out you’re talking about increasing the economic burden on ranchers and reducing profit margins.”

There are working groups in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma trying to find a solution to the bad air problem associated with the prescribed burns.

“That’s why there are certain recommendations that out there of trying to widen the burning window,” Twidwell said. “Of course that’s going to come with trade-offs to the agricultural infrastructure and design, so change comes slow and with always trade-offs to, in this case, the producer.”

The prescribed burns take about a month and are expected to start next week.