Prolonged drought and heavy fuel load provide opportunity for wildfires

Drought stretching from early fall into mid-winter, coupled with an unusually wet spring and summer that produced abundant vegetation in rangeland, pastures and Conservation Reserve Program acreage, makes much of the Southwest vulnerable to potentially devastating wildfires.

“The whole state of Texas, because of abundant rainfall last year that produced a heavy fuel load, is set up for catastrophic wildfires,” says Kent Ferguson, state range conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Temple, Texas.

“Landowners, ranchers and rural communities need to pay attention,” Ferguson says.

“And we have a lot of things we can do to limit damage from wildfires. Education is our primary focus. “We want to make ranchers and landowners aware of the situation and what they can do to prevent wildfires.”

Firebreaks, sometimes combined with prescribed burning, top the list of precautionary actions. “We do a lot of prescribed burns,” Ferguson says. “Some counties have burn bans and we work closely with county officials to make certain we meet proper parameters.”

NRCS also recommends creating firebreaks around structures and fields adjacent to roadways. “Plow or use a blade to create a 10-foot wide strip of bare mineral soil.” Bare soil will keep bar ditch fires from jumping into fields and pastures.

He says some areas require more protection than a 10-foot strip of bare soil. In some cases, where structures are vulnerable or where large tracts of land may be affected, a combination of firebreaks and fireguards may be necessary.

“We create a fireguard, near a structure or road, then build another 100 to 150 feet from and parallel to the first. We do a prescribed burn between the strips to create a black area, with no vegetation, nothing to carry a fire.”

He says they put in the firebreaks first with cooler weather, higher humidity and optimum conditions, and then do the prescribed burn.

Some rangeland requires even more protection. Areas with junipers can be troublesome, Ferguson says. “Junipers can send firebrands as far as 200 feet or more downwind. So in areas with thick juniper populations we create 500-foot firebreaks to increase the area of protection. It's important for landowners to analyze their properties and identify plant types and other conditions that might make the area more vulnerable to wildfire.”

NRCS recommends landowners create firebreaks on the contour to reduce erosion potential. Firebreaks should be reworked annually, prior to fire danger season. The break may need to be rebuilt in dry summers if dry or dead vegetation is present.

In some cases an approved annual green winter crop may be used as a firebreak. These may be fallowed in the summer or planted to a green summer crop.

Ferguson says something as simple as a carelessly tossed cigarette butt can ignite dry vegetative matter along field borders. Downed power lines, not a rare occurrence with high winds common to the Southwest, also pose fire threats. Sparks from welders or other equipment may start fires and arson is always a possibility. “Fires I've seen so far this year resulted from downed power lines or carelessness,” Ferguson says.

He says more than farmsteads are vulnerable to wildfires. “We have a lot of CRP land in the Southwest. Some of that land backs up to rural communities, hospitals and other public buildings. Communities need to be aware of the potential threat.”

He recommends community leaders or landowners take precautions to limit fire potential. “Mowing the vegetation will help. Prescribed burn is also an option.”

He says prescribed burn will do more than prevent wildfires. “Burns will improve rangeland. Fire is good for brush suppression, wildlife diversity and limits damage potential from wildfires. It benefits the ecosystem. Combined with proper grazing management, prescribed burn is a good option.”

Ferguson says any landowner, rancher or rural community leader wanting more information on prescribed burning, firebreaks and other measures to prevent or mitigate damage from wildfires should contact NRCS. “We have a field office in every county and we will work one-on-one with landowners in the field to establish a plan.”

He says the primary goal of NRCS and other state and federal agencies this spring is education. “We're trying to get information out that wildfire potential is significant.”

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