Prescribed Fire in the Texas Panhandle by Jeff Bonner


On the JA Ranch, located in the Texas Panhandle, Andrew Bivins is on a mission to "re-introduce the role of fire into a system that is a fire community." A fifth-generation rancher, Bivins refers back to photos of his family's property in the late 1800's and early 1900's and notes the distinct lack of brush. "Brush encroachment started in the 20th century when we started suppressing fire," Bivins explains.

Anyone who lives in, or has traveled across, the rolling plains—from Clarendon south to Snyder, and from Silverton east to Throckmorton—can attest to the dominance of mesquite, redberry juniper, and prickly pear.

The use of prescribed fire is slowly gaining acceptance in parts of Texas. The momentum of growth is suppressed by wildfire events, as we suffered through in 2006 and on a much broader scale in 2011. These catastrophic wildfires result in a very negative perception of any kind of fire.

It's important to make a distinction between prescribed fire and wildfire. A prescribed fire is a pre-planned, pre-contained fire, intentionally lit under strict guidelines for weather conditions (temperature, humidity, wind speed) and fuel (vegetation) in order to achieve specific objectives that result in targeted improvements to rangeland and ecosystem health. Conversely, a wildfire is an uncontained fire accidentally or naturally lit that could burn under terrible conditions (hot, windy, and dry) through any fuel (natural or man-made) in its path and, though it creates some ecological benefits, is predominantly destructive and unwelcomed. The wildfires in which we see the greatest destruction occur under weather conditions that no prescribed fire manager would ever consider working in. When it comes to media coverage, we never hear of a prescribed fire that went well, but we always hear about out of control wildfires started by arcing power-lines. This trend naturally leads to a fear of all fire, period.

While many ranchers acknowledge the role fire plays in the grassland system, it's this fear, this "playing with fire" concept, which prevents this important piece of the prairie ecosystem from achieving its role. Combating this fear are the numerous Prescribed Burn Associations developing across the state. These associations aim to educate and train landowners to increase the use of prescribed fire as a range management tool, and they are progressing.

Bivins is one of the leaders of the Panhandle Prescribed Burn Association, and he also hopes to educate landowners on the benefits of prescribed fire in addition to the act of burning. "I like the economics" says Bivins. In a land of mesquite and redberry juniper (both vigorous root sprouters), returning the land to a grass-dominated state can be cost prohibitive. While he acknowledges that proper mechanical control gives best results in percent kill of these species (80 to 90 percent), it's also the most costly technique ($40 to $100 per acre). Help from Farm Bill programs can offset at least half of this cost. Yet once completed, mesquite and juniper will return, but can be effectively kept at bay at minimal cost with careful grazing and a rotational prescribed fire regime of every 8 to 10 years. Bivins has also tried chemical control, which can result in decent control of around 50-60 percent kill on mesquite at around $28 to $30 per acre.

Prescribed fire costs Bivins around $8 - $11 per acre once deferment of grazing is figured in, which allows fuel to build up prior to the fire, as well as recovery time after the fire. The beauty is the additional benefits brought about by the fire that are not produced with mechanical or chemical. Fire not only sets back troublesome brush, it also stimulates an abundance of plant species important to wildlife (forbs) and refreshes grasses to a more productive state. This flush in vegetative growth improves habitat for species from grasshopper sparrows to kangaroo rats, and horned lizards to mule deer.

To find out more about Prescribed Fire Associations, Bivins recommends that readers check out the website of the Prescribed Burning Alliance of Texas (PBAT). PBAT is striving to increase the use of this important habitat management tool throughout Texas and represents many of the states Burning Associations.

Jeff Bonner is Technical Guidance Biologist, TPWD Wildlife District 2 working from Pampa

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