Balancing Earth, Air and Fire In The Kansas Flint Hills

Waste to Worth: Spreading science and solutions logoWaste to Worth home | More proceedings….


Native Americans placed great value on the four elements of life,  earth, water, air and fire. They recognized, as we do today, that fire is the most powerful land management tool. The 4.8 million acre Flint Hills region of Kansas is the largest remaining expanse of tallgrass prairie in North America.   Prescribed fire is routinely practiced in the region to enhance livestock forage quality, control invasive species, provide grassland wildlife habitat and improve plant vigor.  But where there is fire, there is smoke, and there are public health concerns when excessive smoke is in the atmosphere.   Ground level ozone can have serious public health consequences and major cities adjacent to the Flint Hills, have recorded excessive ozone levels resulting from Flint Hills prescribed fire.   A collaborative effort including the Kansas Dept of Health & Environment, EPA,  K-State Research & Extension, Kansas Livestock Association and other groups completed the Flint Hills smoke management plan in December, 2010, with the objective of reducing health concerns from prescribed fire, while retaining it as a land management tool.  The plan established a  website of “best smoke management practices” and a comprehensive education and outreach effort for land managers was implemented, involving prescribed fire schools, news articles and radio airplay.   Results of the plan are positive, indicating  that Kansas has responded to the smoke issue appropriately and will retain prescribed fire as a management practice that maintains both the tallgrass prairie of the hills, and the air quality of adjacent metro areas.  The inter-relationships of earth, water, air and fire are continual, each impacting the other.   The Kansas Flint Hills now has a plan to ensure harmony of these essential elements of life.

A prescribed fire in the Kansas Flint Hills

Prescribed Fire in Tallgrass Prairie

The Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan is a collaborative effort designed to maintain the benefit of prescribed fire on the private grasslands of the Flint Hills, while also protecting the air quality of ajor metropolitan areas such as Kansas City and Wichita.   The Flint Hills have particular environmental implications, as they are the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie remaining in North America.

What Did We Do?

Kansas Department of Health and Environment wrote the plan, but embraced those involved with the issue, including K-State Research and Extension, the KS Livestock Association, Farm Bureau, Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, KS Prescribed Fire Council, Cities of Wichita and Kansas City, Natural Resource Conservation Service, KS Dept. of Wildlife Parks & Tourism to develop a plan that would address the goals of all those involved.   A website was developed to give ranchers day by day information regarding smoke emission and direction from a prescribed fire that day or the following day.

What Have We Learned?

Those that practice prescribed fire in the Kansas Flint Hills respect the health and environment of their city neighbors.   Conversely, those living in neighboring metropolitan areas understand the economic importance of prescribed fire as related to beef cattle production, and the role fire plays in preserving the integrity of the tallgrass prairie.   By engaging all entities involved, agreements can be reached, solutions can be found and advancements can be made.

Prescribed fire controls woody species, maintaining the integrity of the tallgrass prairie.

Future Plans

In the years ahead,  KS Dept of Health and Environment will continue monitoring smoke emissions due to prescribed fire in the Flint Hills.  Those practicing prescribed fire will be encouraged to use the best smoke management methods of prescribed fire.   This will be done through K-State Research & Extension prescribed fire schools, the KS Prescribed Fire Council workshops and the KDHE website.


Jeff Davidson  K-State Research & Extension Watershed Specialist      Kansas State University

Additional Information


K-State Research & Extension, Kansas Precribed Fire Council, Kansas Livestock Association, KS Dept. of Health & Environment,  Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, KS Dept. of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Cities of Wichita and Kansas City.


The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2013. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth: Spreading Science and Solutions. Denver, CO. April 1-5, 2013. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.