Management before dry-down critical
AMARILLO – Record rainfall will almost certainly lead to a dangerous wildfire year if proper management actions are not taken before everything dries down, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist.
“We’ve had a phenomenal year for rainfall, and we’re really grateful for it to help our rangeland recover from the drought and give cattle plenty to eat,” said Tim Steffens, AgriLife Extension range specialist in Canyon.
“But the downside is we’ve built up fuel loads where wildfire can travel fast across the countryside and across roadways once the kochia weeds and Russian thistle dry down and begin tumbling across the country,” Steffens said. “Those can scatter fire all over in high winds. So we have to be careful about how we manage before, during and after drought.”
The question, he said, is “what needs to be done about fuel loads and how do we manage wildfire damage?”
On his list are: mowing or grazing large weeds at the right time and creating firebreaks around pastures so that if a wildfire breaks out, it will be on a smaller scale and can burn to those breaks and die out.
“So things like a light disking around fence lines or burning out or mowing that center part of the feeding road to create a wider non-vegetative strip will help. Another thing we can do through grazing management is decrease the overall fuel, making it patchier across the pasture so a fire will not be able to build up the intensity and momentum as it goes across the landscape.”
In some cases, Steffens said, the firebreaks might be isolated for grazing, but that is limited to ranchers who have intensive grazing management systems in place.
The other option is to use prescribed fire to change the overall fuel load, change the structure and change the continuity of fuels across the landscape, he said.
“A lot of people are really scared of prescribed fire. But the thing you need to keep in mind, as we know from several years ago when we had the huge wildfires in this part of the country, is this country will burn. We have plenty of people smoking cigarettes and automobiles backfiring or have bearings go out and dry lightning strikes. The country will burn.
“What we need to concentrate on is do we want to have any say in when, where, how hot, how fast, how big that fire is going to be? The only way we can do that is to create a fire under prescribed conditions that will accomplish goals that we want.”
Steffens said producers need to look at using fire to manage the vegetation by limiting brush and weeds and freshening up decadent forage.
“I use the term prescribed, because we don’t have controlled burns like people talk about,” he said. “The minute you strike that match, your control is over. But you can do it under prescribed conditions and achieve the results you want.
“I hope people will start to consider prescribed fire a little more as a management option. We can do a lot of things with fire,” Steffens said. “It’s a tool in the tool box. We just need to know how to use it safely.”
By employing both fire and grazing management that provides adequate recovery between defoliations, he said, “We can go a long way toward getting the type of vegetation we want without a lot of expense.”