Prescribed fires, reconciling agricultural practice and air quality

April 27, 2022

Table of contents


  • Fire used in a controlled way is an element that humans have used in agriculture since ancient times.
  • The smoke released from these agricultural controlled burns changes the air quality due to the gases and particulate matter.
  • Real-time monitoring of contamination levels and monitoring of weather conditions, especially wind, as demonstrated by Kunak’s project in the sugar cane plantations of Guatemala, introduces clear benefits to help manage these prescribed fires.

Agricultural controlled burns are those in which a supervised fire is used to reduce combustible material or to remove plant remains.

Also known as prescribed burning or prescribed fires, their use has been intrinsic to the evolution of civilisations. Thus, for example, they are used to clear forest areas and provide new areas for cultivation. They are usually carried out by experts in fire management and are always carried out under specific climatic conditions that help to ensure that the fire does not get out of control.

But these controlled fires also have a downside: the changes in air quality. And at Kunak we have the solution to minimise this issue.

Why is it recommended to measure air quality during agricultural controlled burns?

The main objective of the prescribed fires carried out by the sugar cane sector in Guatemala is to eliminate undesirable dry foliage that hinders the manual harvesting of the crop. Amongst other things, burning pursues two basic objectives

  • disposal of plant remains, and
  • reduction of combustible material

which, in addition to hindering harvesting, could burn accidentally and uncontrollably as a result, for example, of a spark from agricultural machinery.

Machinery at work on a sugar cane plantation

Prescribed agricultural fires, however, release gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere, which can degrade air quality. The smoke is in fact visible because of the particulate matter floating in the air and many people associate its presence with pollution. In addition, as we mentioned when we talked about air pollution from forest fires, the effects of smoke can be felt several kilometres away from the source of the fire.

And its impact on health is evident. For example, a study carried out at a sugar cane fields in Brazil revealed a significant increase in PM2.5 exposure among workers and residents in the immediate vicinity of the farm.

Kunak’s solutions in response

In these situations, monitoring air quality with systems such as Kunak AIR Pro becomes a highly recommended task. And that is exactly the solution we have implemented for the Asociación de Azucareros de Guatemala (ASAZGUA) to identify critical points during agricultural controlled burn operations.

Kunak AIR Pro stations deployed in the field monitor the following parameters:

  • Particulate matter of different diameters (PM1, PM2.5 y PM10)
  • SO2 (sulfur dioxide)
  • NO2 (nitrogen dioxide)
  • O3 (ozone)
  • Temperature, relative humidity and atmospheric pressure
  • Wind speed and direction


Controlled burning has been used since ancient times. Through them, landscapes have been transformed and humans have adapted the land to their needs.

But like any other fire, the burning biomass, which in our case study is a sugar cane farm, releases pollutants. And these agents can be harmful to people, especially the smaller particulate matter, which can reach deep into the respiratory system.

The concentration data and wind direction and speed data provided by our Kunak AIR Pro stations are a complement to any prescribed burning plan. The aim to reduce the exposure of both plantation operators and nearby populations.

At Kunak we have the solutions. All you need to do is implement them and start making decisions on the basis of the highest quality data.