Burning questions: When is it okay to burn, what are the rules and regulations for Kansas?
It’s a burning question that arises every spring in rural Kansas - are conditions right for safe burning? For Walter Stockwell, Pratt County 911 Dispatch Director, the answer to that question is answered by answers to several other questions, and the answers to those questions must comply with state and federally mandated laws in order for burning to be lawfully allowed.
“Our office is not here to create problems for anyone, but my job is to keep people safe,” Stockwell said. “There has to be some respect of other people and respect of safety protocols, especially at this time of year when farmers want to burn their pastures, people want to burn their trash in the backyard, someone wants to have an open burn pit and roast marshmallows - they need to call 911 and get a burn permit before any of that is lawful.”
On Saturday, March 27, Pratt County dispatch officers were kept busy fielding call after call from area residents concerned about a large grass fire just south of the city of Pratt.
“That was a controlled burn, but the landowner violated several long-standing, grass-fire rules,” Stockwell said. “It’s just one example of the misunderstandings we seem to have about when a fire can be lit and when not.”
According to Stockwell, and regulations from the Kansas Air Quality division of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a person shall not initiate burning during nighttime hours, which is a period defined as starting two hours prior to sunset and one hour after sunrise.
The problem with the grass fire on Saturday was that it was lit without a permit from the Pratt County 911 dispatch office and was started during an improper time-period. The landowner called in to report the fire after it was already started, after dark. Sending fire rescue crews out in the dark creates more danger when visibility is hampered by low-light and smoky conditions.
“We just have a lot of people burning inapproppriately right now,” Stockwell said. “It takes a little bit of time to call in to the dispatch office to check for the right conditions and proper wind speeds. It would save a lot of trouble if people would respect the rules and guidelines that are issued for safety reasons.”
On Sunday, March 28, large grassfires popped up in northern Pratt County, specifically northwest of Iuka. Even though these were burns called in by landowners and permitted, the danger of an out-of-control situation still existed. Sometimes water in the ditches and green wheat fields is not a good indication of whether a burn is safe or not.
On Monday, March 29, the Kansas Forest Service issued a Red Flag FIre Warning for much of south-central, and central Kansas because of rapid drying of fuels and conditions conducive to fire spread. Grass fires erupted in counties close to Pratt in Reno and Rice counties; and a small, quickly-contained grass fire near Natrona in Pratt County caused some anxious moments for county fire crews before they were able to contain the blaze.
“Despite increasing green-up, standing dead grass still dominates the landscape and will efficiently carry fire,” the Kansas Forest Service warning stated. “Significant wind behind a cold front in the evening will provide a challenging environment for fire suppression.”
Stockwell explained that state and federal fire danger warnings include time-periods when there is no wind or wind under 5 mph or time-periods when recorded wind speeds are 15 mph or more.
“If you have no wind or less than 5 mph, the heat from a grass fire rises and creates it’s own wind - sometimes with speeds up to 25 mph,” Stockwell said. “The law says NO to lighting any type of fires when the wind speeds do not meet the prescribed guidelines.”
Stockwell said his department receives burn requests all the time from people who do not understand the danger of lighting up under the wrong conditions. If controlled burns are not called in for a permit, then when a report comes in, the dispatch department is required to send out the whole EMS fire and rescue contingent. The landowner is responsible for the charge to put out an unlawful fire, as well as any damage that results from such a fire.
As March turns into April, landowners and farm managers of tens-of-thousands of acres of Pratt County grassland enrolled in Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP), will be under the gun to meet contract requirements.
According to a Natural Resources Conservation Service job sheet from the USDA, prescribed burning improves grassland areas by reducing excess plant litter and dense sod formation, allows sunlight to reach the soil surface thus encouraging the germination and growth of forbs and legumes, and suppresses woody plants and other non-native plant species.
CRP contracts do not allow grass fires from May 15 through August 1 because that is the nesting season of many Kansas birds. This creates a burning crunch-time in April when a good fire could prevent future fires, but if set during the wrong conditions, could create unsafe conditions and costly damage.
Stockwell said March and April are the biggest months for burning grass in Pratt County. He expects there to be weekends coming in April with 40-50 controlled burns going at once.
“When the condidtions are right and protocols are followed, we are happy to give the go ahead,” Stockwell said. “We just ask that communication be a priority in the days to come.
According to Stockwell, some people prefer to contact a county or city fire chief to request burn permission, which is allowed by state and federal rules. However, a call is still needed to let 911 dispatch know if a burn is considered controlled, in order to avoid unnecessary call-outs in the event of additional reporting on the fire.
The City of Pratt Fire Department put out a brief list of burning guidelines last week for city residents, echoing Stockwell’s emphasis on safety in all considerations. The Facebook post stated: a fire pit may be used only if it has a grate cover on it, no burn barrels are permitted without calling PFD and getting permission to burn in a barrel with a wire grate for a specific reason with one time permission per each call. 911 dispatch must be notified. Absolutely all other burning is prohibited at this time. State regulations mandate that NO burning of anything is allowed, including fire pits if wind speed is over 15 mph.