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Large-scale study aims to improve fire management of Flint HillsLarge-scale study aims to improve fire management of Flint Hills

Large collaborative project will use unmanned aircraft to improve Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan while balancing livelihood of ranchers and farmers.

September 19, 2018

5 Min Read
Large-scale study aims to improve fire management of Flint Hills
Two Kansas State University pilots fly an unmanned aircraft over a tallgrass prairie prescribed burn to gather smoke emissions data. The pilots are part of a large collaborative project that is using unmanned aircraft to improve the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan and determine smoke constituents.Photo credit: David Burchfield, Kansas State University

Kansas State University researchers are part of a large collaborative project that is using unmanned aircraft to improve the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan.

The three-year project is funded by the Kansas Department of Health & Environment (KDHE) and involves scientists with the university as well as the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) pilots from the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, meteorologists, ranchers and environmentalists.

The research team members have varied backgrounds, but they all share a common goal to improve the environment and human health while balancing the livelihood of ranchers and farmers, the announcement said.

"We want to have our data be useful for keeping fire as a practice that is both ecologically acceptable and socially acceptable in the Great Plains," said Carol Baldwin, the project leader and a Kansas State Research & Extension associate in the College of Agriculture.

The team is collaborating with a Flint Hills rancher to gather data during typical tallgrass prescribed burns. The researchers have attached sensors on unmanned aircraft to gather air quality information during a burn.

The information they gather is helping NASA verify satellite data products and is facilitating collaboration between KDHE and the Environmental Protection Agency to improve the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan. The plan was implemented in 2011 and helps ranchers make decisions about the best days to burn without negatively affecting human health, particularly in metropolitan areas.

In the past, when the weather conditions were right, Flint Hills spring burning affected air quality in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., as well as metropolitan areas in Nebraska and Oklahoma. The poor air quality is bad for people with asthma and other health problems. The challenge is that fire is needed to maintain the integrity of the tallgrass prairie landscape, Baldwin said.

"We need fire," said Baldwin, who is an expert in grassland range management. "If we take fire and grazing out of the ecosystem, we will not have prairies as we know them. We will end up with a scrubby woodland."

Current smoke management models, such as the Flint Hills plan, use data from fires in other parts of the U.S., not in the Great Plains, Baldwin said, and that's a problem. The university-led project wants to get more accurate fire data from the Great Plains region by working with real ranchers during a typical burn.

"It is our hope that ranchers in the Flint Hills will use these tools to plan their burns so they do not impact air quality downwind from the fire," said Doug Watson, KDHE air monitoring and planning chief. "At the same time, we want to educate the metropolitan areas about the importance of the Flint Hills ecosystem and the reasons why the ranchers burn to maintain that ecosystem."

Using unmanned aircraft

To test a prescribed burn, the researchers are working with Jane Koger, a rancher from Matfield Green, Kan. Koger has allowed the researchers to collect data before, during and after the annual burns on her ranchland.

UAS pilots gather smoke emissions from a controlled burn by flying three unmanned aircraft into the smoke above the fires. The unmanned aircraft use continuous sensors and sample sensors to measure particles and ozone-causing chemicals, and they use thermal imaging to measure fire temperature. The continuous sensors use lasers to take measurements and send data, including particle concentration, ozone levels, temperature and humidity. The sample sensors have a small bag to gather and bring back air particulate samples that are analyzed for particulate matter as well as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic carbon levels.

Travis Balthazor, UAS flight operations manager, is leading the team of 12 trained UAS pilots, which includes researchers and students with the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus.

"This is outside the realm of our normal box, so this is an effort that benefits us in the long run," Balthazor said. "As far as operating aircraft and looking to the future of unmanned aircraft, everybody wants to fly beyond line of sight and they want to fly higher. We are getting a taste of that with this project."

After each burn, the researchers have a record of grass biomass that was burned, the fire's heat levels and the emission levels from the fire.

The data are helping NASA verify satellite imagery and remotely driven emissions estimates. NASA uses imaging from satellite data to determine a fire's intensity and smoke emission rates. To complete validation, researchers combine direct measurements of black carbon production with data from a thermal camera that measures the full range of a fire's internal temperatures. The research also is helping NASA improve satellite data models.

Other project collaborators — including Deon Van Der Merwe, adjunct faculty member in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology in the university's College of Veterinary Medicine — are using the unmanned aircraft to estimate fire size by flying aircraft above grassland before a prescribed burn to determine how much grass, trees or shrubs are in the area.

For Koger, the research project can help ranchers like her learn how to maintain the tallgrass prairie without damaging their livelihoods.

"I think it's important to get a better understanding of what we are doing and what we are putting into the air," Koger said. "We have kids and grandkids, and some of them have asthma. It does affect all of us. When we have concrete science — and when Kansas State shares that — ranchers listen. Getting some numbers and knowing what we are really doing and getting that back out to the public will speak to people."

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