By Reggie Lepley
I was invited to participate in a focus group meeting this past month to discuss a very interesting topic and research model. In a somewhat short description, the group holding the focus group is looking at issues which preclude or restrict landowners from adopting the tool known as fire. This meeting was one of three to be held across the state. There were a few county agents in attendance with landowners, members of burn associations, professional foresters and wildlife managers, ranchers, plus several other state and federal conservation managers.
We talk about utilizing fire at almost any and all educational events that involve pasture management related to weed control. As a tool, fire is discussed every educational venue involving brush control; rangeland management; timber management; and wildlife management.
The true value of this tool and the value it provides for management cannot be emphasized enough.
The county agents in the focus group were there to provide insight into the thought processes of our clientele regarding the subject. We work with land managers that see the benefits. We also work with those who never see the benefits because the dark side of the tool is just too much to get past. There is a learning curve here.
This is a topic where the applicator must be an educated individual. There are issues beyond the relatively common factors due to liability concerns. Insurance is one of the hurdles that must be addressed by the manager applying the tool of fire to their land. If you choose to investigate the topic; I encourage you to learn all that you can from qualified individuals. This article is only an introduction to the topic and should be viewed as such.
If you have never read Aldo Leopold’s, “A Sand County Almanac”, please do yourself a favor and buy a copy. Don’t borrow one, buy it! Next to soil sampling, this will be some of the best money you ever spend. I have no doubt. Consider it the most valuable gift you have ever given yourself –seriously that’s how good it is.
Leopold’s descriptions of how five basic tools; readily available to all agriculturists, can be applied creatively to the land is a central element in any land management toolbox. These five tools are: axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun. As with any tool, improper use of a tool can damage as easily as it can construct. You have to be able to close the lid to the tool box as well…
Our efforts as a civilization to tame the wilderness have removed many natural forces previously impacting our lands. We want our existence to be safe and secure. Interestingly enough, removing fire from the natural world has done just the opposite.
Historically fire was a key part of the ecosystem in Texas on a roughly 6-10 year cycle. The prairies burned more frequently, the timberlands a little less frequently but the cycle was there. These cycles of fire and renewal allowed the natural system to work: holding back invasive plant species; providing openings, allowing sunlight to reach the ground and forbs to grow for animals; returning nutrients to the ground; and improving soil water infiltration. That was only the short list.
Removal of fire in our ecosystems has allowed the invasive encroachment of open areas, forested lands to become a thicket and an overabundance of fuel to accumulate. These conditions provide tinder to wildfire simply waiting for ignition and destruction. Add to this mix an expanding human population of residences and construction and the issue magnifies. This would be the wall of flames we see on the news.
When carefully applied prescriptions for managed burns are utilized we can mitigate the capabilities of extreme destruction. We can at the same time direct grazing patterns of animals to areas of renewed growth. The tracks of animals can then be sent to other locations in order to allow the ground to rest. This is a high level of management. Interestingly enough, fire works best under conditions provided by high levels of management. Poorly managed ground otherwise encourages wildfire conditions as opposed to the benefits we are discussing.
Factors affecting fire include fuel and its quantity, wind speed, topography, soil moisture, humidity, and air temperature. There are educational opportunities to learn these interactions; and the methods of application which can control fire to the point which it travels only to where it is needed, rather than where it would go without direction. Applications of proper fire breaks, back fires, back lines, and then the head fire can do great things under correct conditions when guided by an educated hand.
If you wish to learn the science and application of prescribed fire, one of the best ways to do so is to join a Prescribed Burn Association. There are several scattered around the state. No we don’t have an active group here. You will be encouraged to attend burns to see the processes. With this support and involvement you learn the tools, strategies and conditions which must be met for a safe and constructive fire. This also allows you to know more about the process which will make your own efforts much less intimidating when the time comes.
Being respectful of, and at the same time comfortable enough with the tool to not be intimidated is important.
Resources for learning about prescribed fire include:
Prescribed Burn Program – TDA
Prescribed Burning Glossary – Noble Foundation
Living with Texas Fire – TX A&M AgriLife Extension (prescribed burning video series)
And if you wish to participate in a little more formal version of self-paced training for additional education, you can enroll in the Prescribed Rangeland Burning online course. This educational material utilizes the videos mentioned previously plus additional reading and information which will walk you through much of the process. This is presented in a seven part format which will have you ready to attend a hands-on burning workshop. Course enrollment can be found at: Prescribed Rangeland Burning There is no cost for this online training.
The last prescribed fire I was involved in found me on the back fire, working what would ultimately be utilized as the back line designed to stop the later ignited head fire. As our fire boss left to go to another part of the field, his last words to me were “Don’t let my fence burn down.”
“Ok, got it under control” was my reply.
When the fire approached the fence line I was looking at the weeds populating the fuel load, and found myself thinking I need to let that burn an extra little bit. Conditions were right and the movement of the flame was not beyond what could be managed. At some point I looked up to see a few cedar fence posts flame up down the line. In the process of extinguishing those flaming posts, I looked back at the corner set. Yep, lit like a candle, they were on fire too. Not a problem to put out and no real damage…but it left a bit of visual evidence. You can just imagine the comments when the boss came to pick me up.
He did have a clean fence line when we were done… I reminded him how much money we saved him on herbicide costs.