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Wildfire in pastures a threat

CORPUS CHRISTI - A Texas Cooperative Extension range expert said pastures need protection now from wildfire.

Wayne Hanselka, Extension range specialist here, said high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and moderate to extreme drought prevail across much of the state.

All that is needed to touch off this lethal mix is an ignition source - a cigarette or a spark from a welder, power lines or a catalytic converter, he said.

"Over the years, land managers have tended to neglect protective measures on the land," Hanselka said. "Precautionary measures, such as fire guards, particularly in more fire-prone areas, aren't as common as they should be. However, it's never too late to install measures designed to protect pastures and facilities from this very real threat."

The most common protection against wildfire is fire guards around and through pastures, he said. The guards form a break that keeps fuel from a fire. A fireguard can help keep fire in or out of a pasture, or keep it contained within smaller blocks of land. The fire lines need to be wide enough to slow the fire and keep it contained, he added.

"Fire guards may take several forms and several types may be used together," Hanselka said. "The more permanent types are done mechanically, often with a disc, a blade or a plow. Grasses are removed or turned under the soil so that bare soil is exposed. Any grasses occurring on the line could form a 'bridge' that allows fire to creep across the line. These fire guards need to be at least three times as wide as the adjacent vegetation is tall (3 ft. high grasses = 9-10 feet or more of fire guard).

A flame front should approach the guard, lay down over it, and not touch the far side of the guard."

Temporary guards can be constructed by mowing excess fuel, he said. The remaining stubble will still burn, but not with the intensity or rate of spread supported by higher fuel loads. A strip is mowed around a pasture with a disced or bladed line next to it. Another strip is mowed to eliminate tall grasses from the plowed strip.

"Another combination is to use two lines - mechanical, wet lines using water, and/or chemical lines (a super phosphate slurry) - at an appropriate distance apart," he said. "The space in between is then burned out. This effectively removes any fuel for a distance away from the perimeter of the pasture. It is effective for season-long protection. Of course, the burning of these 'blacklines' should be done when conditions allow them to be safely burned. Widths vary with the kind and amount of fuel present. Black lines should be at least 100 feet wide in grasslands with oak or mesquite brush. In volatile brush such as cedars, the black line probably should be at least 500 feet wide."

Fireguards provide an added bonus, Hanselka said, by doubling as food plots for wildlife or forage for livestock. Disced fireguards can be fertilized and planted to cool-season annual grasses and forbs, he added.

The green vegetation will not burn and provides food for a variety of wildlife species.

Many fireguard options are available, so each landowner must decide on the type and design that best fits his situation, Hanselka said.

Information on protecting property from wildfire is available from Extension agents and specialists.

"As drought conditions worsen, now is the time to protect our rangeland pastures and facilities before it's too late," Hanselka said.

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