Comparing prescribed fires and wildfires

At a wildlife seminar we held a couple weeks ago, one of our speakers focused on the benefits fire can create for regional flora and fauna in rural areas, including those dominated by ranch properties for sale in Texas. A properly contained and controlled blaze can be an effective tool for a number of reasons. Animals, timber and pastures can all experience improved health and productivity, and we can also help ensure the safety of our forested and open lands. 

Now I know that fires may cause alarm for a number of folks on general principle. The key is understanding the difference between wildfire and prescribed fire. The difference is not unlike drugs: Some save lives and bolster the health of numerous individuals. Others destroy lives and ruin families. It's much the same with different types of fire.

Prescribed fires don't run reckless like wildfire, but rather are planned and carefully deployed to improve a tract of land - like a radical but effective medical treatment. Such a blaze has a clear purpose and is plotted out with exact borders, a crew to monitor it, equipment for controlling it, a set weather pattern that it will operate under and on-site emergency contingencies in the event it tries to cross a fire break. Fire effectively suppresses most shrub-like plants, while encouraging grass and forb growth. As a result, sound timber, livestock and wildlife management must incorporate prescribed burns if their full potential is to be realized.

Fire's importance in this regard was understood well before European settlement. Native Americans used blazes to attract grazing animals, and realized that areas once burned will thrive with lush new vegetative growth, attracting wildlife and benefiting society at large. It aided settlers interested in country living long before the advent of brush-mowing tractors and herbicides.

Prescribed burns vs. wildfiresA wildfire, as pictured here, is much different from (and more damaging than) a controlled, prescribed burn.

We know all too well the destruction that wildfires can cause. Emergency personnel are called in to battle out-of-control fires started in very dry conditions with plenty of kindling available as fuel. This not infrequently leads to a loss of homes, properties and lives.

What is ignored or simply untold is that decades of unnatural fire suppression can contribute to the severity of a blaze. Remember the Bastrop County Complex wildfire? Under natural conditions, that land would have burned many times over the years. Each time the amount of combustible material would have gradually decreased. Instead, it destroyed everything in its path for a two-month period in 2011 until being driven underground.

Prescribed fires follow guidelines that establish the conditions and manner under which fire will be applied to a particular area, for extremely specific management and ecological objectives - entirely unlike wildfires that arise during extreme drought and tear through TX land at breakneck speed. The conditions for a prescribed burn (season, vegetation growth stage and weather) must be conducive to safe and effective burning.

If you are interested in learning more, various state agencies and professionals exist to help landowners who want to engage in prescribed burns to improve the quality of their agribusiness operations or simply benefit local wildlife. A great website to use when beginning your research is the Prescribed Burn Alliance of Texas.You can also call the Texas A&M Forest Service for a list of professional foresters you can hire, and contact the Texas Department of Agriculture for training opportunities for prescribed fire courses, Finally, consider getting in touch with Texas Parks and Wildlife and asking about their prescribed fire trailer stock with all the necessary equipment to conduct a successful burn, and look for demonstrations and seminars with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Perhaps the best example of a land steward in our area that uses prescribed burns is the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture. Whenever you drive through national forests, look at how open and clear the land is. If you study the vegetation on their sites that are managed, you will see an obvious and marked improvement, thanks in part to carefully controlled blazes.