Range Management in the Flint Hills

Uses of GIS in Smoke Management of Flint Hills Prairie Burning

Amanda Lee alee492@mac.com and Yan Wang yanwang_68@yahoo.com

ES351 Class Project

Flint Hills Map

Overview of the Flint Hills Prairie Burning

Every year from mid-March to early May, large areas of the Flint Hills prairie undergo prescribed or controlled burning. Despite the fact that the fires generate large quantities of smoke causing visibility and health problems, the burning is an essential element of the prairie ecosystem and had been used for centuries by the Mother Nature and Native Americans to maintain the prairie.

Prairie Burning

Most of the Flint Hills is better suited to ranching than farming because of the cherty gravels in the soil(1). Since the rainfall here is high enough to grow shrubland and even forest, the Flint Hills would not be the grassland as we see today without the fires(2). A good controlled burning requires specific moisture conditions in the soil, good timing, planning, organization, safety consideration, and suitable meteorological conditions.

Prairie Burning

What are the Concerns about the Smoke from Prescribed Burning?

Despite the benefits of the controlled burning, smoke generated from the fires can cause visibility, health, and air quality concerns. Smoke from the fire is often blown near the road causing visibility problems for drivers of the passing vehicles. There have been many incidents of smoke-related fatalities in Kansas.

Fine particles in the smoke aggravate lung and heart diseases. Young children, older adults, and adults active outdoors are especially vulnerable to these fine particles. Other smoke components including organic matters and nitrogen oxides are precursors to the formation of ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone can irritate human lungs and aggravate lung disease. Young children and older adults are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of ground-level ozone.

When certain meteorological conditions prevail, smoke from the controlled burning can cause violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particles and ozone. Smoke plume can sometimes travel thousands of miles affecting areas far away from the fire.

In 2003, a majority of the prairie was burned during a seven-day period between the second and third weeks of April due to the severe drought conditions early this year in Kansas. On April 12, there was an inversion layer over northeast Kansas that trapped all the emissions from the fires. Monitors in Topeka reported readings that are very close to the NAAQS for fine particles and the NAAQS for ozone was violated in the Kansas City area. The smoke plume affected areas as far away as Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the NAAQS for ozone was also violated.

The Role of GIS in Solving the Problem

To continue the use of fire as a valuable tool for the Flint Hills prairie, smoke from the fire must be managed to minimize its effects on visibility, human health, and air quality. One use of GIS in smoke management is the aerial and satellite imagery. Many images are available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). These images can be used to track the progress of the prairie burning and the spread of the smoke plume. Without these images, both the extent of the smoke plume and magnitude of the problem are difficult to capture and comprehend accurately.

Another use of GIS is the GIS software. The GIS software, associated database, and the mapping and analytical capabilities provide good resources for an effective smoke management plan. Database can consist of many layers of data such as roads, pastures, vegetation, local communities, soil conditions, meteorological conditions, fire locations and sizes, and other related information. Maps can display single-layer or multi-layer data in an easy-to-understand format. GIS analytical tools can be used to facilitate development of an appropriate burning schedule that can minimize the effects of the smoke without sacrificing the benefits of controlled burning. In brief, GIS software provides a one-stop shopping opportunity for the smoke management plan.

Remote sensing is another useful tool for the management of controlled burning activities. It can be used to monitor the health of the prairie and track the invasion of woody species into the prairie. Information gathered from remote sensing is helpful in determining which pastures need to be burned in a certain year.

Fires in Central United States
Fires and Smoke in Central United States


Periodic controlled burning is very important for the well-being of the Flint Hills prairie. GIS technology can help ranchers, local and state governments, and concerned citizens to effectively manage smoke from the fires. The goal should be keeping the prairie healthy and attractive to livestock and wild animals without endangering public safety, public health, and air quality.


1. Flint Hills from the Kansas Geological Survey.

2. ESU Biologist Reports on Recent Prairie Burning by Dr. Richard Schrock.

EB/ES 351 Introduction to Geospatial Analysis.

Emporia State University (2003).