The offices of Gov. Pete Ricketts and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler both said complaints would be lodged with Kansas after a stinking haze of smoke once again settled over Lincoln.
Smoke blown north from agricultural burning in the Flint Hills area of Kansas caused the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to issue a health warning Wednesday morning advising people to stay indoors and avoid strenuous physical activity.
Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality will follow up with counterparts in Kansas.
"The air quality today is unacceptable,” Gage said in an email. “We will continue to work with Kansas to ensure they take action, and we will consider our options if we do not see a better plan from them."
Beutler also planned to give Kansas his two cents about health concerns posed by the smoke, Chief of Staff Rick Hoppe said.
"The administration is reviewing all of our options, including potential legal action. Mayor Beutler will be contacting Kansas officials to make our concerns known," Hoppe said.
The air was bad enough Wednesday morning for Lincoln Public Schools to cancel outdoor recess and physical education classes for elementary and secondary students.
Calvert Elementary sixth-graders were particularly unhappy to wake up to the haze because the health risks prompted school administrators to cancel a field trip to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo. The school had applied for a grant to help pay for the first-time class visit, said Principal Jeff Brehm.
“We had some disappointed parents and students, but we were able to reschedule,” he said.
Lincoln’s Air Quality Index -- a yardstick for measuring pollution that runs from 0 on the good end to 500 on the bad end -- peaked at 163 from 6 to 7 a.m. on Wednesday. Officials said that level put Lincoln’s air in the red zone on the index -- unhealthy for everyone.
Light winds out of the south carried the smoke from fires that happened Tuesday in the Flint Hills and surrounding areas, including Southeast Nebraska. The burns keep cedar trees from taking over the Kansas plains and are a controlled way to deal with brush and dried grass that otherwise could fuel wildfires.
Nebraska has been complaining about the smoke from the annual prescribed fires for years. On one day in 2014, Lincoln had the worst air quality in the nation, attributed largely to the Kansas burns.
Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality has worked with Kansas and the federal Environmental Protection Agency since the 2014 incident to encourage landowners to spread controlled burns over a longer period of time to mitigate the nuisance. Kansas has responded positively, NDEQ spokesman Brian McManus said in an interview.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has encouraged more fires in March to minimize the amount of smoke on a given day and created a predictive model that shows which days would be best for burning to avoid sending smoke into populated areas.
The Kansas Department also issues public notices when it expects extensive burning will produce voluminous smoke.
This year, spring rains in Kansas condensed the number of days in which burns could happen, McManus said.
Smoky conditions generally are more prevalent at night and in the morning because of something called temperature inversion, which happens when warm air creates a "cap" on top of cooler air, trapping smoke close to the ground. The smoke tends to lift as the day warms, allowing air near the ground to warm, rise and mix with cleaner air above.
Winds help clear out the smoke, Schroeder said.
The smoke blanketing Lincoln on Wednesday began to lift after noon with the Air Quality Index improving from red to orange to yellow.
The yellow category means there could be some pollutants that pose a health concern for a small number of people unusually sensitive to air pollution.
The orange category warns of possible health effects to people with asthma, lung disease, other respiratory conditions or heart disease as well as older adults and children.
With the improved conditions by noon, the school district decided to allow middle and high school students outdoors for P.E. classes and activities.
Preschool and elementary school students remained inside, however, including after-school clubs.
Additional burning Wednesday could lead to elevated or at worst moderate smoke conditions Thursday, but it's expected to be better than conditions Wednesday morning, according to information on the Nebraska DEQ website.