Texas, USA — Because there are no million-dollar homes in the way, wildfires in South Texas haven’t made the national news this year. That doesn’t mean tens of thousands of acres of Brush Country habitat haven’t gone up in smoke.
Lost in a fire that started March 14 and burned for two days was about 95 percent of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Chaparral Wildlife Management area. And while trucks and barns caught in the wall of fire can be replaced relatively quickly, experts predict it could take decades for the whitebrush, mesquite, huisache and prickly pear, which serves as either food or cover to a variety of animal, to return.
“Obviously, we are concerned about the short-term impacts at the Chap from this wildfire, and we should be,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “But the bigger story I think is whether these sorts of intense wildfires will be a growing pattern throughout South Texas.”
Ironically this spring’s fires are a result of last year’s rain. Vegetation in South Texas literally jumped out of the ground last year. Then when the summer, fall and winter turned dry that vegetation became a source of fuel.
Controlled burns are one of the best wildlife tools around, but they are set under perfect conditions and create a cool fire that burns just inches off the ground. That is not what happened at the Chap and surrounding ranches, including a neighboring property owned by Anderson County resident Jack Brittingham. Before controlled, that fire burned 50,000 or more acres across Dimmit and LaSalle counties.
Chap manager David Synatzske described the conditions as ideal for a fire with 7 percent humidity, almost 100-degree temperatures and a roaring 20-mph south wind to keep it running. Under those conditions the flames at times rose 20 feet into the air.
The amount of fuel in the form of dried grass was higher than it has been for years on the area because cattle that normally graze on it were pulled off during the drought of 2005-06. Ironically, a decision to leave them off one more year to help quail nesting was made just weeks before the fire.
The loss, as far as equipment and buildings, is going to be costly. The department lost a research building, some trailers, possibly 30 miles of game fence and 23 miles of irrigation pipe that fed watering stations and irrigated pastures.
As it is, without insurance replacing everything lost, the fire could cost the department upwards of a million dollars. And it could have been worse. Because of an earlier fire near Cotulla that made a move on the area, fire lanes around the Chap had recently been widened. The staff’s efforts in setting backfires around the area during the fire also helped minimize some damage.
Surprisingly the initial cost to wildlife seems much smaller.
“We went out there on the Thursday and Friday after the fire and flew a survey with the helicopter,” said Len Polasek, TPWD Wildlife Division regional director from Rockport. “The number of dead deer we saw from the air came close to what we saw on the ground, 30 or 40 dead, but we saw 595 live ones. We saw javelina, feral hogs and quail. It appeared like we didn’t loose all the animals. As the fire went across the area they had time to move out of the way.”
Polasek, who was on the ground the second day of the fire, said the staff that was there throughout the fire saw some amazing things.
“One of our technicians and biologists were driving around the area trying to get a handle on what was going on. There are a lot of paved roads on the Chap and they came on a spot that had 20 deer, bucks and doe, standing on a paved road with the fire on either side. They were smart enough to get on the pavement so they would not get burned,” he said.
Working to save what they could on the area, Polasek said one piece of heavy equipment was moved out of the way by an employee driving it with a tire on fire.
After pumps on water storage units went out when power lines burned to the ground, Synatzske’s manager’s house was saved only after the staff punctured an above ground swimming pool to flood the area and formed a bucket line to stop the fire inches away. Within days of the fire, TPWD staff began arriving to patch fence and rebuild water lines to buildings, just enough to get the facility up and running.
They immediately began research by setting GPS photo points that can be used for vegetation regrowth comparison in years to come.
And at the same time rebirth was being seen. Even without a good rain, lantana was beginning to reappear around the area as was buffle grass, an exotic grass biologists would have just as soon seen burn and not return.
Polasek said in the coming weeks attempts would be made to get water to the wildlife, map out a long-range research plan and also determine what needs to be done for the wildlife in the short-term.
“We are hopefully by the end of the week going to start sampling and collecting some of the deer, taking samples of rump fat, kidney fat and rumen samples to see what they are eating. We want to make sure they are not overly stressed and then we have to decide if they are not getting enough to eat or if we have to provide them something,” Polasek said.
The biologist said it was going to be interesting to follow the recovery of the area because not all of it burned the same. At the beginning, when the humidity was down and the wind was high, the fire burned hot, turning everything in its path to ashes. During the night when the humidity climbed and the winds dropped, it burned more like a prescribed burn, only to pick up intensity again the next day.
“From a research standpoint, if we can go out on the WMA to see where the different fires occurred, we are going to have different levels of vegetation damage. Some places are dust and in some the brush is intact with the brush below it gone. There is going to be two different reactions,” Polasek explained.
Whether the vegetation returns as the thick brush that was there at the time of the fire or the savannah that existed historically, no one is certain. There is nothing to compare it with.
“We just don’t know for sure. It would be nice if more of the brush country can be opened as a savannah. That is what we have tried to do with management,” Polasek said.
The department has 30 years of research data from the Chap to draw on as it moves forward. It is possible, however, that the final results will be written by those not even born yet. Estimates are it could take 30 to 40 years, maybe more, for habitat on the area to completely recover.
At this point, Polasek said there are no plans to change the deer hunting schedule for the 2008-09 season.