Prescribed burning has significant economic benefits to grassland managers, but can also potentially cause air quality problems at times near large metropolitan areas. But, new modeling tools and decision-support systems being developed at Kansas State University (KSU) could help reduce the potential for problems.

Carol Blocksome, KSU Extension range management researcher, will be field testing a voluntary system this spring in selected areas of the Flint Hills as part of the State of Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan. The test will be the start of a validation and refinement period of the new system that should last 2-4 years. The system could then be finalized and operational in about five years, if all goes well.

The decision-support system (DSS) being developed by Doug Goodin and colleagues in KSUs Department of Geography, is based on a smoke plume transportation model called V-Smoke, used by the U.S. Forest Service. That model attempts to predict where a large plume of smoke will go on a given day, based on environmental conditions and other factors.

The DSS uses V-Smoke, along with data on forage biomass conditions on the ground and historical burn patterns in specific counties, to predict how much burning may take place on a given day, how much smoke could occur, and the direction in which the smoke plume is likely to move, Blocksome says.

KSU’s DSS model will be run daily during April, with the results issued as a series of advisories for specific counties, or sections of counties, in Kansas.

“If the DSS model results suggest that burning in a particular location is likely to cause smoke plumes to move over a large metropolitan area, it will flag that location as an area of concern. This will provide burn managers with additional information for deciding whether burning at that location should be recommended,” Blocksome says.

Starting in April 2011, KSU Extension staff and others will ask grassland managers to check the DSS website starting at 6 a.m. the morning before a prescribed burn is planned, she says.

“If the website flags a location as an area of concern, we hope grassland managers in that area will consider calling off the burn that day and waiting for the next opportunity,” she says.

Adjusting burning plans to take into account the information provided by the DSS model will be voluntary for now. Whether compliance remains voluntary depends in part on how well the DSS model advisories are accepted by grassland managers in the Flint Hills, Blocksome says.

“If this voluntary system is successful, we may be able to avoid having any type of mandatory regulations on prescribed burning in the Flint Hills,” she adds.
-- USDA Ag Research Service release