From the Pen of Robert L. Cook
Wildfire! The word itself creates fear and deep anxiety in the hearts of those who have experienced the devastation and the loss of family members, friends, homes, equipment and domestic livestock as a result of uncontrolled grass fires or forest fires. This year in Texas, more than one million acres of land were burned by wildfires, causing the loss of dozens of lives, many homes and buildings, and millions of dollars worth of property and livestock. Our hearts and prayers go out to those who suffered these losses and who must now start over and rebuild their lives, their homes and their way of life.
Yet, Aldo Leopold, nationally recognized as the father of wildlife ecology, listed “fire” as one of the key tools to be used in range management and to improve wildlife habitat. “The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — ax, plow, cow, fire and gun….” wrote Leopold in 1933.
Fire, natural and man-made, has been a significant part of our state’s environment and ecology for thousands of years — long before the first European gazed upon what was to become Texas. History and the study of natural ecology indicate that much of the state was once a vast grassland savannah, or open prairie, with few of the trees, forests and brush common today. The landscape was kept in this predominantly grassland condition by regular, and frighteningly impressive, range fires; many started by lightning strikes, some started by prehistoric man to “freshen” the grassland and attract wildlife. Since the mid-1800s, man has suppressed fire to protect homes, livestock, fences, equipment and other property. Like many Texans, I grew up with a single purpose attitude towards fire: “fight it.”
So why did Leopold, a professional forester in the early 1900s, advocate the use of fire to improve rangeland and habitat? First, he was not talking about wildfire; he was talking about prescribed fire, or what many folks call “controlled burns,” and there is a major difference. Prescribed burns are conducted by trained, experienced individuals. Prescribed fire is used only under weather conditions that allow for containment of the fire while achieving specific habitat management goals. The area on which prescribed fire is applied should be prepared in advance with firebreaks, and the burn conducted with fire-control equipment such as water sprayers and water tanks on hand and ready for use at the right time and in the right place. Prescribed burns promote native grasses and forbs (weeds), and increase plant diversity, while reducing undesirable woody species which can invade and dominate fire-free grasslands. Many of our preferred wildlife plants are “fire-tolerant” and others require fire to stimulate germination of seeds. Use of prescribed fire during the winter months prior to spring green-up is frequently recommended to today’s land managers to minimize the impact on wildlife species and cover for ground-nesting birds. When used in combination with livestock grazing and grazing deferment, prescribed fire is an effective and efficient tool for today’s land managers.
Ironically, Leopold died in 1948, at the age of 61, while fighting a brush fire on a neighbor’s farm near his beloved Wisconsin River. However, his impact on the management and conservation of our natural resources may be greater today than ever before.
How and when prescribed fire is used to improve our range and habitat is critically important. Fire itself is not “At Issue.”