Every spring across the vast, open Flint Hills grasslands, fires blaze for miles. The flames lick at the blue Kansas sky as the brown, dry grass crinkles, crackles and bursts into orange.
Viewed up close or at a distance, prairie fires are mesmerizing. Beautiful and frightening at the same time, it’s hard to take your eyes away from this annual ritual.
These fires aren’t a recent phenomenon and they aren’t strictly for the viewing pleasure of those traveling up and down our highways. Long before civilization invaded the prairie, fires were ignited by lightning storms and the charred prairie restored the health of the native grasses.
Native Americans set the first prairie fires. They used the fire to attract bison for easier hunting.
Today, farmers, stockmen and landowners continue to use fire as a range management tool while maintaining the economic viability of the Flint Hills.
The artificially ignited controlled burning of the tall-grass prairie in east-central Kansas is an annual event designed to mimic nature’s match. It’s part of a tradition, part of the culture of the communities and the people who inhabit this region of our state.
Fire remains an essential element of the ecosystem. Burning pastures is one of the best management tools for maintaining the native prairie.
This annual pasture burning only occurs for a few days each year. It is not a procedure that is drawn out and lasts for weeks. Weather conditions dictate the length of the burning seasons most years.
Not every cattleman burns his pastures every year. Instead, individual ranchers and landowners survey and decide each spring, which pastures will benefit and produce a healthier, lush grass for livestock after burning. Often neighbors plan and burn together, giving them more hands to ensure a safe, controlled burn.
Forage quality and ecosystem health are both dependent on fire. Without fire, woodlands take over the Flint Hills and the livestock industry loses a valuable resource.
Kansas State University recommends burning take place when wind speeds are between five and 15 miles per hour, relative humidity is from 40 to 70 percent and temperatures fall in the range of 55 to 80 degrees.
Landowners in all counties must notify local officials prior to planned, controlled burns. This notification is key to preventing prescribed fires from turning into accidental wildfires and ensuring burning is allowed under the existing conditions.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) has a Kansas Flint Hills Smoke management plan to help alleviate air quality issues in urban areas generated by prescribed burning in the Flint Hills region. Coupled with the associated web tools, it provides producers better decision-making abilities when planning and implementing prescribed fires.
Producers can assess how the smoke from their burns may impact urban areas downwind. Information like this can make a difference in keeping the ozone within acceptable levels regulatory restrictions from impacting ranchers. This website is www.ksfire.org.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.