Kansas landowners appear to be ignoring plea by state officials to reduce burning this spring to lower air pollution during the pandemic; Gov. Kelly defends church gathering limit, KDHE wants companies to make100,000 test swabs

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.

TOPEKA — Ranchers are sustaining regular levels of rangeland burning in Kansas despite a request by state officials for a voluntary reduction in acreage set ablaze during the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of a noticeable cutback, controlled burns consuming hundreds of thousands of acres have produced smoke plumes that triggered alarms from Wichita to Lincoln, Neb., because of surges in air pollution harmful to people with cardiovascular issues and other health conditions.

"It really hasn't gone as well as we had hoped," said Rick Brunetti, director for the bureau of air at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "We are seeing a great deal of burning. We have not seen the reductions in burning that we were hoping for."

23 local outbreaks

On Monday, state officials said Kansas is battling nearly two dozen outbreaks of coronavirus emerging at a dozen long-term care facilities, three private companies, five religious gatherings and a state prison.

KDHE reported 20 employees and 17 prisoners at Lansing Correctional Facility tested positive and were being quarantined. Five church-related outbreaks had been identified, including the Wyandotte County event leading to four fatalities and 46 positive tests for the coronavirus.

Gov. Laura Kelly said the controversial executive order limiting church assemblies to no more than 10 people was a profound disruption during Easter Sunday, but a necessary step to stem the spread of a deadly virus. Churches in Junction City, Lawrence and Wichita defied her order. Local law enforcement is responsible for enforcing the state order.

var divElement = document.getElementById('viz1585929193983'); var vizElement = divElement.getElementsByTagName('object')[0]; vizElement.style.width='100%';vizElement.style.height=(divElement.offsetWidth*2.00)+'px'; var scriptElement = document.createElement('script'); scriptElement.src = 'https://public.tableau.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js'; vizElement.parentNode.insertBefore(scriptElement, vizElement);

"I am hoping that we don't see any other clusters as a result of what occurred over the weekend. Time will tell," the governor said.

Kelly renewed an executive order exempting truckers from weight regulations if hauling materials associated with the pandemic response.

The governor said during a daily briefing at the Capitol that decisions about scaling back social distancing directives would depend on science and health assessments of the coronavirus in Kansas rather than the preferences outlined by President Donald Trump from the White House.

In Kansas, COVID-19 has been linked to the deaths of at least 62 people and infected 1,376 people in 61 counties. KDHE says 741 cases are women and 629 are men, with six unknown.

Supply shortages

Lee Norman, a physician and the KDHE secretary, issued an appeal to companies with 3-D printers to manufacture swabs used to test for the coronavirus. Lack of special swabs has been the limiting factor in terms of expanding testing in the state, he said.

He said the state could make use of as many as 100,000 swabs manufactured in Kansas. Much of the testing in Kansas has been taken on by private labs, but KDHE wants to expand its capability to about 1,000 tests daily.

Kelly said diversion of protective gear from Kansas to states with severe outbreaks reflects a federal distribution model that unfairly penalizes states that effectively bent the infection curve.

Seven requests for equipment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency have gone unfilled, she said.

"The system the feds put into place really does punish states like Kansas that got at it soon, bent that curve and have not had those real hot spots," Kelly said.

The big burn

More than 2 million acres in the Flint Hills is burned annually to undermine growth of invasive plants and promote emergence of lush grass for livestock.

State agriculture secretary Mike Beam and KDHE secretary Lee Norman appealed to property owners for restraint amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This request should not be interpreted as an indictment of the practice of burning,” Beam said. “However, the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have created a situation that calls for reducing burned acres this spring.”

Controlled burns generate large amounts of particulate matter and substances that produce ozone, which cause health problems even in healthy people. The smoke is a hazard for people with asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular conditions are more susceptible to the coronavirus, health officials said.

The state's recommendation on grassland fires was designed to reduce demand on first responders and hospital staff as the virus worked its way from population centers of Sedgwick, Johnson and Wyandotte counties into less populated regions of the state.

Since the March 26 appeal by the two state agency secretaries, monitoring equipment detected six instances in which levels of ozone or particulate matter exceeded safety benchmarks. The volume of particulate matter surpassed safety margins in Wichita, Topeka, Chanute and Kansas City, Kan., at various times from April 4 to April 8. Topeka's ozone level surpassed the limit April 8.

Health alerts

That was followed last Friday by an explosion of grassland fires in eastern Kansas that prompted officials at the Lincoln-Lancaster County, Neb., health department to issue an advisory about widespread burning in the Flint Hills and northerly winds producing smoke concentrations "unhealthy for everyone."

Children, older adults and anyone with heart or lung diseases were asked to avoid outdoor activities this past weekend, said Gary Bergstrom, air quality supervisor for the city and county agency in Lincoln.

Craig Volland, chairman of the air quality committee of the Sierra Club's chapter in Kansas, said the latest mapping of Flint Hills fires and the number of exceedances of air-quality standards indicated Kansans were burning at the same pace as in 2019. A more complete assessment will be available later this year based on analysis of satellite images, he said.

"In any event, this problem is not going to be solved until the burning is spread out beyond the traditional three to four week period in early spring," Volland said. "This period is often characterized by rainy and windy weather. When suitable conditions do appear, many landowners jump at the opportunity to burn, creating excessive smoke."

He said recent research at Kansas State University suggested burning grassland in late summer or early fall, when the weather is more cooperative, resulted in better control of certain noxious weeds.