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In Nebraska and surrounding states, the prescribed burn season continues.

LINCOLN, Nebraska (Nebraska) — Officials say prescribed burns over the next few months could impact Nebraska’s air quality.

Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and other states have entered their prescribed fire season, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Prescribed burns are carried out to conserve and manage areas such as grasslands, forests, and wetlands.

“This practice can reduce dangerous fuel loads, restore and preserve natural wildlife habitats, provide better feed for cattle, and control invasive plant species,” Nebraska’s DHHS said in a statement. “Registered burning minimizes the risk of wildfires and effectively manages pasture resources.”

While burns can provide long-term environmental benefits, smoke can temporarily affect air quality. Potential wildfires throughout the year can also affect air quality. The DHHS says air may only be affected for a few hours during prescribed burning, but smoke from wildfires can affect air quality for days.

In 2018, DHHS announced the development of a public smoke alert system. Smoke warnings are issued when smoke from planned fires or wildfires adversely affects air quality. The consultations inform residents of affected areas about what they should do to protect themselves during times when air quality deteriorates.

The Air Quality Index uses a color chart to indicate air quality and provides recommendations on what affected residents should do (Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services).

Smoke guidelines are being developed in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, DHHS, local health departments, and other sources in the region.

One area where burns are often prescribed is the Flint Hills pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma. Typically, the Flint Hills burns about 2.4 million acres of land per year. Last year, parts of Nebraska were affected by smoke from these fires.

Nearly 2.1 million acres were burned in Nebraska in 2022, and there were eight days when air quality was considered “moderate” on the index scale.

The DHHS says smoke from prescribed burns and wildfires can cause several negative health effects, especially for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The smoke can cause burning eyes, runny nose, cough, and diseases like bronchitis. DHHS recommends that Nebraska residents follow some tips when air quality is poor:

  • Keep doors and windows closed and use air conditioners with HEPA filters.
  • Stay hydrated, drink plenty of water.
  • Limit or avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.
  • People with respiratory or heart conditions should stay indoors.
  • Call your doctor if you have symptoms such as chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath, or extreme fatigue.

The current air quality in Nebraska can be checked online using AirNow, a tool that uses the air quality index.

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