Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M Communications

December 30, 2008

5 Min Read

“Plans” for prescribed burns need to be turned into “actions” before a wildfire occurs, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist.

“I believe that we often plan in our minds to make proper preparations, but these ‘planned thoughts’ never seem to materialize until the crisis arrives, and then we are forced to hastily make decisions and preparations after the fact,” said J.F. Cadenhead, AgriLife Extension rangeland specialist in Vernon.

When utilizing prescribed burning as a tool to mitigate the negative effects of wildfire, landowners should not wait until the wildfire is bearing down upon them before they hastily begin removing the fuel load by burning blacklines and backfires, Cadenhead said.

It was well known following the massive wildfire of 1988 (around 360,000 acres burned in numerous counties), that if substantial acres had not already been burned in Shackelford County with ‘prescribed fire’ during the few months leading up to that fateful March, many more acres, structures, livestock and possibly human lives would have been lost, he said.

“Fortunately, the fuel load (grasses and other vegetation) had already been reduced through prescribed burning on various ranches across the county that the wildfire’s advance was often impeded in just the nick of time,” Cadenhead said.

The main objective of using prescribed fire on rangeland is to safely and effectively apply fire under a prescribed set of conditions to accomplish certain goals for the landscape, he said. This prescription and goals should be written down in a fire plan that is followed by the actual burn.

“The prescription not only varies according to the landowner’s goals and objectives, but can be highly variable according to the type and makeup of the vegetation as well as topography of the landscape,” Cadenhead said.

An important and often overlooked goal should be to reduce the potential of a wildfire. Prescribed burning can and should be utilized more often with the simple goal of reducing hazardous fuel loads, he said. These heavy amounts of vegetation dry out and become a wildfire hazard.

“Whether you are burning for range management purposes or burning to reduce wildfire hazards, proper and advanced planning is required for safe and effective burns to occur,” Cadenhead said.

He provided some tips for landowners planning a prescribed burn on larger scale ranches, adding that many of these same principles can be applicable to smaller properties as well:

– Get professional help to design and develop a fire plan. Determine goals for the burn with advice from a knowledgeable person to see if they are realistic.

– Check on fire liability riders for the property’s insurance policy. It may need updating.

– Plan early enough to acquire needed equipment (sprayers, drip torches, two-way radios, weather monitoring instruments, etc.) and accomplish heavy equipment work (bulldozers or maintainers) for cutting fireguards or re-cutting roads.

– Plan early enough to allow for deferment of grazing so that enough grass to carry a good flame front is available by burn date. That may require a full growing season or more, depending on the rainfall.

– Try to participate in several prescribed burns before scheduling one.

– Locate some skilled help with experience in prescribed burning or send someone to burn schools or workshops. This may require a lot of advanced planning and dollars.

– As the burn date nears, follow the fire plan in securing help and in notification of neighbors, emergency personnel such as local and county fire departments, county sheriff’s offices, highway patrol, oil and gas lessees, grazing lessees and hunters.

“Obviously, if one is simply trying to reduce wildfire potential around a homestead or smaller home site adjacent to rural areas, you do not need the enormity of preparation required for burning rangeland and large landscapes,” Cadenhead said.

Some potential problems and safety tips that small landowners should consider, preferably before the vegetation begins to completely dry out, are:

– Contact neighbors in the subdivision, the local subdivision authorities and local law enforcement authorities, secure the proper permission and plan how to work cooperatively to reduce the wildfire hazards threatening the area.

– Examine all structures around the home and outbuildings for vegetation buildup. Grass is the main fuel for fire, but dried weeds can also burn. Closely shred or mow areas leading up to structures or to other fuel loads, and possibly consider plowing or burning some areas to make a fireguard. The taller the grass, the wider the fireguard needs to be. A rule of thumb is to make the fireguard approximately four to five times wider than the vegetation is tall.

– Avoid driving and parking equipment and vehicles in tall, dry grass. Move equipment to a safe area and/or closely mow the parking area or ranch roads. If needed, closely shred ditches along ranch roads and camping areas prior to hunter access.

– Watch for sparks from rocks when shredding or mowing. If needed, wet down the area before mowing.

– Maintain adequate pasture fireguards, especially those along public roads.

– Be aware of county burn bans.

– Maintain spray equipment and keep the water tank full and sprayer ready for emergencies. Check for a good battery and full fuel tank.

– Be sure the 9-1-1 address is clearly visible from the road.

Cadenhead said most rural fire departments are familiar with the concepts of prescribed burning. They had much rather see the smoke from a well-planned prescribed burn than be called out to extinguish a poorly planned ‘controlled’ burn that got out of control.

“Let’s be responsible citizens,” he said. “We must take the necessary time, do the proper planning, acquire the proper help and often permission, and then be willing to follow the ‘prescription’ and proper conditions when we do burn.

“If the fire plan is designed and conducted correctly, then the chances of accomplishing a safe and effective burn are greatly enhanced,” Cadenhead said. “We owe it to our firefighters and to our neighbors.”

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