Wildfire risk reduced with proper precautions
By Kay Ledbetter
That’s how fire officials and rangeland management specialists have described this year’s combination of heavy grass growth and dry conditions.
“We have the potential for brush fires every year, but large amount of grass growth from all the rains has made it real extreme this year,” said Dr. Jim Ansley, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station rangeland ecology researcher in Vernon.
“Because of high fuel loads and weather fluctuations, the serious situation is expected to remain through March - in spite of occasional bouts of moisture,” said Dr. Wayne Hanselka, Texas Cooperative Extension range specialist in Corpus Christi.
“An inch of rain won’t last no time,” Hanselka said. “We would need good soaking moisture to minimize the danger, and even then, between the rains, the fuel will remain dry.”
Communities surrounded by pastures and heavy grass growth should take note and take action, Ansley said. “(In) smaller communities without a lot of buffers like concrete parking lots and asphalt roads, community leaders should meet quickly to assess their situation.”
In the past 10 years, many communities have gotten away from thinking about fire dangers and long-term planning because severe droughts have left fuel in supply short, he said, but added, this year could be an emergency situation.
Smaller communities, such as Ringgold near Wichita Falls, which was burned extensively in January 2006, are surrounded by rangeland and people must take action, Ansley said. “I think it’s important for citizens to take the initiative on this. Ask city leaders if meetings are planned or if they have a game plan at all.”
He advocated determining where prevailing winds come from and exploring short-term plans to provide extra firebreaks in potential danger areas. “It’s a stop-gap situation right now, but there might be some key areas that could be plowed, shredded or mowed.”
Individuals must also take responsibility and exercise caution, Ansley said, such as when lighting outdoor fires - including barbecue grills - or when engaged in outdoor welding, which could spark the next wildfire.
“Be careful when driving on rangeland or off-road. Don’t leave your car idling over dry grass and broomweed,” he said. “The catalytic converter could produce enough heat to start a fire.”
The same warning goes out to hunters, Ansley said, who should avoid making fires and driving off-road if possible.
“We emphasize preparedness,” Hanselka said.
In communities where four or five acres surround houses, he recommended homeowners secure their homesteads and facilities against a wildfire by making sure all water hoses and firefighting tools work and sprayers have water in them. “Having the facilities and tools properly placed can make a difference,” Hanselka said.
Both Hanselka and Ansley advised larger landowners to think about mitigation, fuel management and prescribed burning. Fuel management can include shredding, grazing or burning down grasses. This keeps from getting in a situation where fire can do significant damage, Hanselka said.
“As a tool in fuel management, removing fuel is important,” he said. “Whether it’s a welding spark, thrown cigarette or hot box on a railroad, if the fuel is not there, it’s not going (burn).”
Ranchers or large landowners must also ensure roadside ditches are mowed adequately along their property line, Ansley said. “If they haven’t been cut, contact the highway department to make sure mowing gets done,” he said. “It’s a relatively low-cost thing to drive the roads and see the bar ditches have been mowed.”
Hanselka said there are tools that land owners can use to lower the risk of fires. Winter is a peak season to do prescribed burning, and under the right conditions, it can be effective in mitigating the dangers.
With this year’s increased grass growth, some ranchers may consider prescribed burning to manage brush, Ansley said. But in this type of year, landowners must check to see if their county has a burn ban. At press time, Bandera County’s burn ban is temporarily suspended, but people who wish to burn must inform the sheriff’s department.