Ag field burns help researchers forecast future burns

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 22, 2013 

Information from recent agricultural field burns near Walla Walla could soon help researchers do a better job of deciding when to burn in hopes of reducing problems for neighboring communities.

The research is a partnership involving the federal, Washington and Idaho state governments, tribes and Washington State University.

Last month, researchers gathered data before, during and after field burns near Walla Walla and in Idaho. They'll use the date to refine computer models.

The research team used a tethered balloon, portable ground instruments and an airplane to collect the information on everything from field conditions and weather to the smoke plume.

After more weeks of data crunching, the information will be used to fine-tune the University of Washington computer model that the state Department of Ecology, state Department of Natural Resources and clean air authorities use to decide when farmers should burn their fields, said Brook Beeler, Ecology spokeswoman.

Within the next year, researchers will tweak the computer model and see if changes help officials minimize the effect of the smoke on human health and the environment, she said.

Officials will use the computer model each morning to determine what window of time a field burn would have the least impact to air quality, Beeler said. The field's location, the crop and weather conditions are all considered.

A farmer may not be able to burn at all that day or the number of acres may be limited, she said. "It's a real balancing act."

On average, about 160,000 acres are burned annually in Eastern Washington, she said.

The fields generally are cereal grains such as wheat and barley or where alfalfa seed has been planted.

Burning wheat stubble can save fuel and time because the stubble does not have to be worked into the soil with machinery. The flames also kill weed seeds, so fewer chemicals are needed on next year's crop.

Most of the burning tends to happen in July through October, although some fields are burned between February and March, she said.

Since July, Ecology officials have issued 146 burn permits for about 19,000 acres in Walla Walla County, 53 permits for 5,000 acres in Franklin County and 37 permits for 3,500 acres in Adams County.

Unlike farmers in Adams, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, Benton County farmers receive permits from the Benton Clean Air Agency for agricultural burns.

Since July, the agency has issued seven permits, including nearly 400 acres of wheat stubble and up to nearly 1,000 tons of material at old orchards.

Robin Priddy, the agency's executive director, said they use a simpler model from the University of Washington to make burning decisions.

Farmers who have a permit call the agency to hear an automated message that tells them if they can burn or not that day.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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