USA — Roxanne and Elvis Hernandez considered themselves lucky in September 2011 when the wildfires that ravaged Bastrop County missed their property by about a mile. So last weekend, they set fire to their land themselves to protect it from the next wildfire.
On Saturday, Roxanne Hernandez walked through the dead weeds on their 53 acres, pouring out dollops of flaming fuel from a drip torch and watching a sporadic breeze push a line of flames across their land. A team of about 30 volunteers armed with shovels, rakes and heavy rubber flappers stood nearby to extinguish any errant embers.
A growing number of Central Texas fire officials say prescribed burns which require a detailed plan and supervision by a qualified burn manager need to become more common after the 2011 wildfires underscored a lurking hazard: huge swaths of drought-parched trees and dead vegetation that could provide fuel for future devastating wildfires.
We still have thousands and thousands of acres in Bastrop County that are susceptible to wildfire, said Mike Fisher, head of Bastrop Countys emergency management office.
Fisher, like many of those paid to fight against or plan for fire, says the states 2011 fire season the worst on record, highlighted by the Bastrop fire that claimed two lives and more than 1,700 structures was the wake-up call that has changed attitudes among many local firefighters and elected officials about the seemingly unnatural act of setting fire to land that wasnt burning.
Fire officials say prescribed burning is the least expensive method to get rid of unburned fuel, and its easier on the land than using bulldozers or other heavy equipment to do it mechanically. Fisher said burning typically costs about $400 per acre in Bastrop County, mostly for labor, creating fire breaks and monitoring the site after the burn, versus about $1,200 for mechanical thinning. Roxanne Hernandez said that because they are members of a local burn group that provided volunteers, they spent only about $400 to $500.
Native trees and grasses typically thrive after a fire, which promotes new growth, adds nutrients to the soil and controls unwanted species such as ashe juniper (better known as cedar, the bane of so many Central Texas allergy sufferers). Native Americans and generations of farmers and ranchers used fire to improve the health of their land for centuries, but the practice fell out of favor as more people moved into forests and brushlands and began extinguishing wildfires, which led to a decades-long buildup of fuel.
Five years ago, it was hard to find a local fire department or county government that supported prescribed burning, said Carl Schwope, a fire management officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After 2011, he said, they seem more eager to get involved.
But state regulations dont allow burning to reduce wildfire risk without specific permission, and state agencies like the Texas A&M Forest Service stopped supervising prescribed burns for any reason on private land.
Meanwhile, most local fire departments dont yet have the necessary training or experience to begin doing prescribed burns the Austin Fire Department, for example, started a wildfire mitigation division just last month and has begun studying how it might use the technique.
And because most land in Texas is in private hands, fire officials say they need to convince landowners that fire can be used in a positive way.
Not all fire is bad, said Jim Linardos, an assistant director at the Austin Fire Department who leads the new division. Its the way nature did things before we came and started suppressing fire.
In recent years, prescribed fires have mostly been used for habitat and land management on government-owned land such as the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and in the city of Austins watershed protection lands. Schwope said Fish and Wildlife Service has burned about 2,000 acres per year in the 20,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands since 1997. The city has burned about 5,500 acres since 2002 on its land.
But there doesnt seem to be a great deal of interest (in prescribed burning) by private property owners, Fisher said. In Bastrop County, the Hernandezes are the only landowners who have filed a prescribed burn plan with the county since the 2011 fires, and Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee said he hasnt seen any signs of property owners doing more burns.
Fisher and others cited a host of reasons for the reluctance: a shortage of qualified burn specialists, the potentially high cost of insurance, the time and money required to cut firebreaks and properly prepare land for a burn and, of course, the fear of sparking a wildfire. Last March, Colorado banned prescribed fires by state agencies after one set by the Colorado State Forest Service got out of control, burning thousands of acres, destroying or damaging 27 homes and killing two people.
Under Texas state law, landowners can burn outdoors without a permit for a host of reasons such as burning trash, farm field stubble, debris from cleared land, even animal carcasses as long as no local burn ban is in effect.
You have the right to go out and burn, said Dave Redden, president the South Central Texas Prescribed Burn Association, which was launched a few years ago by landowners and naturalists who have been trained in conducting burns. You also have the right to be sued if you make a mistake.
State law also allows prescribed burning for land management and improving wildlife habitat but not for wildfire prevention.
Thats an issue that needs to be worked out, Redden said. We need to be able to burn for public safety.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials said they will authorize such burns on a case-by-case basis; statewide, the agency has received only about 10 requests to do hazard mitigation burns since 2008, said spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler.
Fisher said one potential way to increase prescribed burning is to get local fire departments involved. With proper training, they could supervise burns and have the advantage of better fire suppression equipment and experience, he said. For taxpayers, the cost of having firefighters supervise prescribed burns would be a lot lower than what it costs to extinguish big brush or forest fires.
I really do think fire departments are the solution, he said.
The Hernandezes had planned their prescribed burn for three years. They hired a contractor to mulch some of the thick brush beneath the trees and till 16-foot-wide fire breaks around the boundaries of their property.
Along with reducing their fire risk, Roxanne Hernandez said they wanted to burn off the tree litter so pine seeds could take root, stimulate growth of native grasses and improve habitat for the endangered Houston toad. (She is the administrator of the Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan, aimed at protecting toad habitat).
With help from the prescribed burn association, the Hernandezes wrote a detailed burn plan, notified the local fire department and other government offices and got written consent from two of their neighbors. Then they had to wait for the right combination of dry air, wind and other atmospheric conditions so the land would burn and the smoke wouldnt linger.
This isnt the kind of thing that once you decided to do it, you got out and do it next weekend, Redden said. It takes a lot of time and planning.
The association, which sends members to workshops in Sonora (about 200 miles west of Austin) to get trained, has done more than 20 burns since it formed, Redden said. On Saturday, former volunteer firefighter James Robinson acted as the burn boss, choosing where the fires were set and giving orders by walkie-talkie to the team of volunteers.
As they began, smoke billowed and swirled in the cold morning air. The dry brush crackled and snapped.
As nervous neighbors watched from across the fence line, they burned about two-thirds of the 43-acre target area by nightfall but the flames died in the wooded thickets because the wind wasnt as strong as forecast, Robinson said.
And Roxanne Hernandez had to soothe other neighbors who called her cell phone after seeing the smoke and flames.
Id be nervous if I was a neighbor, she said. Fires a scary thing.
Everyone Ive talked to understands why were doing it, she added. Its a little anxiety producing, but I firmly believe in the benefits of what were doing. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.