Smoke Management: Prescribed Fires and Air Quality

Throughout history, humans have relied on periodic fires as an effective way to manage land. Today many state agencies and private land managers use fire as a cost-effective means to diversify the ecosystem. These controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, are planned within predetermined boundaries and conducted by trained individuals when suitable weather conditions occur.  The benefits of controlled burning include:

  • Enhancing wildlife habitat
  • Reducing the risk of catastrophic fires
  • Promoting native vegetation
  • Improving forest and grassland health
  • Controlling unwanted vegetation

Despite these benefits, controlled burns in Kentucky are often misunderstood and seen as harmful to the environment.

On the surface, many people may not recognize why it is important for the Kentucky Division for Air Quality (DAQ) to understand and be a part of prescribed fire planning in Kentucky. Both prescribed fires and wildfires play a significant role in air quality. National Emission Inventory data estimates that fires in Kentucky account for over 15,000 tons of fine particulate matter emissions annually. This represents approximately 20 percent of all fine particulate matter emissions statewide.  Fine particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that the particles can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems.

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To better understand and plan for prescribed fire events, the Division for Air Quality is a member of the Kentucky Prescribed Fire Council. The Kentucky Prescribed Fire Council consists of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, universities, contractors, and private individuals who promote the safe and beneficial use of controlled burning as a land management tool.  In regard to air quality issues, the council established an Air Quality Committee to focus on smoke management and air quality impacts.

In addition to health impacts, DAQ is watchful because these fires impact ambient air quality monitoring stations across Kentucky and these exceptional events could lead to exceedances of federal ambient air quality standards. Division staff is working with the Council on the development of a smoke management plan to help identify data impacted by these fire events.

“Proper planning and management of prescribed fires is necessary to protect human health and the environment,” said DAQ Acting Director Sean Alteri.

For additional information about the Division’s efforts regarding prescribed fire and smoke management, contact Jennifer Miller at 502-564-3999 or visit www.air.ky.gov.

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