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Wildfire risk can be doused if education action is taken now

Dangerous. That’s the one word fire officials and rangeland management specialists use to describe the combination of heavy grass growth and dry conditions.

“We have the potential for brush fires every year, but what’s made it real extreme this year is the large amount of grass growth from all the rains,” said Dr. Jim Ansley, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station rangeland ecology researcher in Vernon.

“And because of the high fuel loads and the weather fluctuations, the serious situation is expected to remain through March, in spite of the 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 need to take note and take action, Ansley said.

“(In) the smaller communities that don’t have a lot of concrete and asphalt as buffers in terms of roads and parking lots, it would be a real good idea for community leaders to have a planning meeting quickly to assess their situation,” he said.

This could be an emergency situation this year, Ansley said. Many communities have gotten away from thinking about fire dangers and long-term planning in the past 10 years because of the severe droughts that have left the fuel supply short.

But smaller communities, such as Ringgold near Wichita Falls that was heavily burned in Jan. 1, 2006, are surrounded by rangeland and need to be taking action, he said.

“I think it is important for the citizens to take the initiative on this,” Ansley said. “Ask city leaders and see if meetings are planned or if there is a game plan at all.”

Determine where the prevailing winds will come from and see if there are any short-term plans that can be implemented to provide extra firebreaks in the potential danger areas, he said.

“It’s a stop-gap situation right now, but there might be some key areas that could be plowed, shredded or mowed.”

Individuals also need to take some responsibility and exercise caution, Ansley said. Be careful lighting any outdoor fires, including barbecue grills or outdoor welding, which could spark the next wildfire.

“Be careful if you are driving on rangeland or off-road to not 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. They should avoid fires and try to avoid off-roading if at all possible.

“We emphasize preparedness,” Hanselka said.

In communities where four or five acres are surrounding houses, homeowners need to secure their homesteads and facilities against a wildfire, he said. Make sure all water hoses and firefighting tools work; make sure sprayers have water in them.

“Having the facilities and tools there, properly placed, can make a difference,” Hanselka said.

Larger landowners need to think in terms of mitigation, fuel management and prescribed burning, Hanselka and Ansley both said.

Think about fuel management – shred it, graze it, burn it down – to keep from getting in a situation where fire can do significant damage, Hanselka said.

“As a tool in fuel management, removing that 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 to go.”

Hanselka said there are tools that land owners can use to mitigate and lower the risk. Winter is a peak season to do prescribed burning, and under the right conditions it can be effective in mitigating the dangers.

One action ranchers or large landowners might want to take is to make sure the roadside ditches are mowed adequately along their property line, Ansley said.

“If they haven’t been, contact the highway department to make sure that gets done,” he said. “In terms of impact, that is a relatively low-cost thing to drive the roads and make sure the bar ditches have been mowed.”

With the increased grass growth this year, some ranchers may be considering prescribed burning to manage brush, Ansley said. But in this type of year, landowners need to first see if their county is in a burn ban. The Texas Forest Service has an updated list of counties enacting bans at: .

“If they are allowed to burn, I would strongly recommend on the large pastures of more than 100 acres that they use a parallel dozer lines about 200 feet apart as a fire guard on the downwind side of the pasture,” he said. “In regions with cedars, the dozer lines should be wider, upwards of 500 feet apart.”

Pre-burning between the parallel dozer lines creates a black line, Ansley said. This black line should be burned early in the morning or late in the evening when the humidity is increasing – to reduce the intensity of the fire because the goal is just to get it black and remove the fuel source.

“You have a much better chance of the keeping the prescribed burn under control if it burns up to the black line,” he said. “It would be very risky under these conditions to try to light a back-fire off a single dozer line in a large pasture and try to send a head fire into that back fire and keep it all contained.”

Hanselka warned that going through the procedure of making sure a prescribed burn is out, completely is also important.

“No cow patty left smoldering,” he said.

If someone wants to do a prescribed burn, it is important to follow proper procedures, both Hanselka and Ansley said. Laws and other prescribed burn information can be found at .

“It is critical to contact local authorities, make sure you check the weather forecast on that day and make sure weather variables– temperature, humidity and wind speed – are measured at the site before deciding to burn,” Ansley said.

“Know the conditions when it is not safe to burn,” he said. “Also make sure you have a written burn plan that includes a map and have it with you during the burn.”

More information about protecting against and preventing wildfires can be found at:

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