RICE COUNTY — A cloud of smoke rose from a pasture in southeast Rice County last Saturday morning. But unlike with the recent wildfires that have ravaged Kansas, no alarms rang and there were no fire trucks on the scene.
Rancher Todd Harmon set the blaze with help of a crew of fellow cattleman from McPherson, Reno and Rice counties. The goal was to save the grass while burning off dangerous, moisture-sucking invasive plants.
“Managing grass through fire is the proper thing to do,” Harmon said. “But, it can be scary.”
That is why he and his fellow ranchers last fall formed the Tri-County Prescribed Burn Association. The idea is to promote the safe and proper methods to keep unwanted plants, such as the eastern red cedar, from taking over valuable grazing land.
The use of fire to cleanse the prairie is nothing new; just ask Mother Nature. For millennia, massive wildfires regularly swept through the region.
Then, man arrived. “Now, we put them out because we live here,” Harmon said.
What is a burn association?
“We are a group of guys who got together and formed this organization,” Harmon said. “It’s a neighbor-helping-neighbor concept.”
The Tri-County PBA is an official nonprofit entity. This way it can accept tax-deductable donations.
“This allows us to raise money and buy equipment,” Harmon said. With these funds, they have purchased radios (invaluable at a fire site), a chain saw, shovels, a fire swatter, fire warning signs and other items, and an enclosed trailer to store them.
These tools augment spray rigs, trucks and other gear owned by the farmers.
Saturday, March 18, was the association’s first burn and this equipment was mustered into service. Although it was only 60 acres, it went well, Harmon said.
“We got our feet wet,” he said.
However, there is a misconception. Some assume, since members pay dues, the PBAs do the work.
“PBAs don’t burn people’s pastures, the owners do that,” he said. The association is only there to help facilitate the burning.
A group effort
The Tri-County group is one of two associations in Rice County. The other, the Allen Sleeper PBA, covers the southwest corner of the county.
The two are among 14 PBAs in Kansas. There are also associations in Russell and Ness counties.
These associations are independent groups not affiliated with any government agency, said Jess Crockford, southwest regional coordinator for the Kansas Prescribed Fire Council. But, there is a support system.
“There is a lot of government support of burn associations and managing natural resources by using fire,” he said. Several state officials belong to the KPBC.
The council applies for grants and other forms of funding to support Crockford, who is retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Hutchinson. His “retirement job” is to go out and promote PBAs.
In addition, there is the Kansas PBA, of which local PBAs are members. This is another means of sharing information and receiving training.
Anyone who has driven through Flint Hills in the spring has seen ribbons of fire rolling across the hillsides. This is a regular occurrence.
“There is a strong burning culture in the Flint Hills,” Crockford said. Ranchers there know the value of the process and have embraced it.
But, as one gets further west, “burning gets more and more taboo,” he said. “I’ve been at this for four years and it’s been relatively slow getting going.”
Where the cedar trees are not as much of problem out west, other woody plants, like sand sage brush, are. Areas like Clark County, which saw two-thirds of its pasture land go up in flames, would benefit from prescribed burns.
“It wouldn’t have hurt,” Crockford said. However, with 50-mile-per-hour winds and drought-induced tinder-dry conditions, it would have still been tough to control the recent fires.
However, “I think we’re gaining momentum,” he said. He was just at a meeting in Ellsworth County, which also experienced recent wildfires, and the farmers and ranchers were receptive.
There are many benefits to prescribed burning, Crockford said. It controls cedars and other woody plants, and cheat and other unwanted grasses. These invasive species use moisture that would otherwise feed the desired vegetation. It also removes the layer of thatch that can inhibit grass growth.
“It very much improves the vigor of native grasses,” he said. This improves grazing for cattle and habitat for wildlife.
It can also help control diseases that infect livestock and wildlife, and keep vegetative fuels away from adjacent urban areas.
“Fire departments are very supportive of our efforts,” Harmon said. Pastures with only grass are easier for firefighters to manage than ones with trees and shrubs.
Unfortunately, as was the case with the recent Reno County fire that destroyed several homes, more people are moving into rural areas and live among the flammable shrubbery. “They don’t know how dangerous that is,” Harmon said.
Prescribed burns differ from the controlled burns used by farmers to burn off crop residue, Harmon said. These fields can be disked to control the blaze and there is often better access and more gentle topography, so a farmer can possibly handle the effort on his own.
Pastures are regularly remote and have rolling, rugged terrain, making access difficult.
Starting a prescribed burn is much more than torching a pasture, Crockford said. “There’s a science to it.”
Ranchers tap the National Weather Service to get wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and other atmospheric conditions. Burn association members are encouraged to have a written plan with this information, as well as a map of the area to be burned.
There is another factor. “Smoke is becoming more and more of an issue,” Crockford said. This is a problem for sensitive individuals with such conditions as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“Ranchers need to be aware of this and do what they can to reduce the smoke,” Crockford said.
They do this by taking the “mixing height” into consideration. This is the altitude at which the smoke will enter atmospheric transport winds and be carried away.
Burning when this altitude is greater prevents more smoke from settling in the surrounding area, Crockford said.
But, it’s ultimately about strongly independent ranchers helping each other instead of relying on officials. “At the end of the day, it comes down to individual ranchers taking the time to manage their pastures,” Harmon said.