“Fire is well documented as a key ecological driver in grassland communities and it’s the premier ecological management tool,” says Jeff Davidson, Kansas State University Extension ag and natural resources agent. Davidson hails from Greenwood County, deep in the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills. And that puts him deep in the middle of efforts to develop a workable smoke management plan that accounts for the need that Flint Hills ranchers have to burn their pastures every April, and the need that downwind communities have to manage air quality.

“From an economic perspective, we use fire to increase gains in our cattle,” Davidson says, as well as a range management tool to control invading brush. On the other hand, he says air quality monitors in Kansas City, Wichita and other communities have shown that smoke from prescribed fire in the Flint Hills has, at times, caused ozone levels in excess of what’s regarded as safe and acceptable.

In an effort to maintain the status of both the Flint Hills and those metropolitan areas, the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was developed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), with input from all the affected parties.

The plan is voluntary for Flint Hills ranchers, says Tom Gross, KDHE air monitoring and planning chief and the chief architect of the plan. Its clevis is a web site (www.ksfire.org) that contains various tools a rancher can use to determine whether or not it’s OK to burn, based on wind direction, weather and other factors that affect the ability of the smoke from the fire to cause excess ozone production in downwind communities.

Basically, the plan asks ranchers to hold off burning if the data indicates it could have negative implications for downwind air quality. That means, says Flint Hills rancher Mike Colinge, ranchers are going to have to prioritize their burning efforts. “We’re going to have to work way smarter and way harder to get accomplished what we have in the past, and we will not get everything done that we want to do.”

For Colinge, that means burning earlier or later than the traditional April window if possible, and doing everything he can to be ready on the days when he gets the green light. “Last year, in 2010, according to the meteorology and safety and all the factors, we had five days in April that we could burn.” he says. That means ranchers will jump on the accelerator when the light is green and maybe yellow. Or even a burnt orange.

Gross understands that.”I totally understand that there may be a day that, for safety considerations, it’s the best day for you to burn. You’re waiting to push the smoke away from a highway. Your neighbor’s house is right next door. You’ve got something else you want to protect.”

So the rancher goes on the website and it’s a bad day to burn. “If you need to burn that day, I’m not going to be surprised if you’re going to go ahead and burn,” Gross says. “But I’m hoping that the fellow next to you, if he doesn’t have the same considerations, perhaps delays until a better day. That’s what we’re hoping for – to give you all the tools and try to get the best decisions made on a collective basis.”

It’s important for ranchers to consult the website and take all the factors under consideration when deciding whether or not to burn, says Tom Moxley, a Flint Hills rancher and state representative. “Good voluntary compliance is more important than anything a rancher or farmer can do,” he says.

He realizes that ranchers don’t fit well into rigid rules. But he says if ranchers don’t give the regulators any other alternative, that’s what will happen – rigid rules.

Moxley says on his ranch, he’s got to burn nearly every day during the burning season. But it takes just as much work to burn a quarter section as it does to burn 5,000 acres. “So if I see I’m going to shoot over to Kansas City, I’m going to work on that quarter section.”

According to Gross, that’s the spirit the plan is trying to encourage. “If you’ve got something you can hold off on and burn later so it doesn’t coincide with the prairie burning in April, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Burn it earlier, burn it later, but don’t burn it all at the same time.”