Texas Success Story: Stronger Together
Texas A&M Forest Service Helps to Protect Lives, Property and Livelihoods from Wildfire
The East Amarillo Complex Fire in 2006 burned almost 1 million acres in 48 hours – most of that occurring within the first 24 hours. Olympic sprinters can’t run that fast. The wildfires were driven by a weather phenomenon called a Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak – or firestorm.
Firestorms can move with great speeds and consume tens of thousands of acres over a very short period of time. Fires are usually driven long distances from west to east and a corresponding wind shift will then drive the fires to the south, causing this fire to leap a mile in one direction and then suddenly turn and run in another direction. And firestorms, like tornadoes and hurricanes, are referred to as extreme weather events.
There are only two ways to deal with a Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak (SPO). One is to get out of the way, and that is impossible for a small town in the Panhandle. The other way is development of pre-fire prescriptions through cooperative efforts of state agencies and the affected landowners themselves. So the prideful Texas ranchers, who fiercely protect their property rights, now swing open their gates for state and federal agencies. The team helps individual ranchers as well as helps them put up “zones of protection” around their communities.
“Texas is 94 percent privately owned and there are partnerships we have to create to make this work, not only with state agencies, but with federal agencies,” said Jim Cooper, the assistant chief state ranch management coordinator for the Texas Ranch Wildfire Program.
“The partnerships with the private landowners is key to preventing fires and mitigating fire throughout the state. It used to be we could go on private property only when the fire is burning. Now, we’re doing it before the fire happens. This enables a quicker mitigation and containment of wildfires throughout the state.”
Ranches buy in because one of the first questions the state asks as part of the program is, “What are your priorities?” Ranchers’ priorities can be different from ranch to ranch. They can pinpoint water sources, gates and sensitive areas. When a rancher’s priorities are known by the Incident Commander of the fire, tactics and strategies can be adjusted to try to meet those needs. Thus enhancing relationships and cooperativeness throughout the ranching community.
The Texas Ranch Wildfire Program officially started this spring as a statewide initiative, but the partnerships between Texas A&M Forest Service, the state’s official wildland fire service, and the ranchers in the combustible Texas Panhandle goes back a few years. In 2017, because of fuels and potential SPO weather events, a grassroots approach unifying responders and landowners was formed. The initiative began to identify the best ways to address these challenges. Solutions included tactical ranch plans and community protection plans.
The collaborative efforts in the past in the Panhandle spurred the state to ask Cooper, a firefighter by trade, to take the program statewide. At this point, the program is ready to start comprehensive work in early August around four communities, in preparation for the upcoming winter fire season.
The initiative couldn’t come at a better time. The USDA Forest Service, and other Department of the Interior agencies, spent a record $2.9 billion in 2017 combating fires.
What the Texas program will do is manage that “wildland urban interface”, the ground between the plains and a town, so the town is not engulfed in flames due to an approaching wildfire.
Cooper said the majority of firefighters in West Texas are part of volunteer fire departments. The Texas Ranch Wildfire Program ties together VFDs and landowners with government agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, US Fish & Wildlife, and the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association also plays a vital role.
In 2017, there was a significant fire adjacent to Borger – the Airport Fire. It was the combined efforts of prior training and mitigation – similar to ranch planning – that had a direct impact in bringing the Airport Fire to a successful conclusion and protecting the community of Borger.
This incident, unfolding in real time, gave cooperators from the Four Sixes Ranch, Borger Fire Department, Creek Ranch and Texas A&M Extension Service the opportunity to test the concept of the Texas Ranch Wildfire Program and prove that taking these mitigation efforts and partnerships between responders and landowners can successfully protect these communities on the plains.
The program is using data to prioritize which towns will need the most protection when the 2019-20 fire season arrives this winter. Scientists take historical weather data from the last 20 years, examine the drought index, look at the averages of fuel and ground moisture, and then rate towns that are under immediate threat. Most of those towns are in the Panhandle and north central and western Texas.
Additionally, the Texas Ranch Wildfire Program is working in coordination with Texas A&M Forest Service Forest Resource Development in studying the effects that wind rows have on the spread of fire. Trees are planted close together to create a windbreak as part of fire prescription.
Other prescriptions will include rotational grazing, and grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Services for “grubbing” in pastures will remove volatile fuels.
Cooper has put a lot of time and miles travelling around the state of Texas talking to ranchers, cooperators and community officials in the last four months. His primary objective has been to promote the Texas Ranch Wildfire Program. He has done this though one-on-one contacts, the development of a webpage and Public Service Announcements created by Texas A&M Forest Service which may be considered first-rate. Cooper said the investments in PSAs are well worth it to get the word out to communities and ranchers.
In early June, Cooper gave a presentation on The Texas Ranch Wildfire Program in Sterling County. He walked in the room and there were 45 ranchers from the county eager to hear his pitch.
“They showed up with an eagerness to learn about the program and were very positive throughout my 3 ½ hour presentation. Ranchers in attendance understood and agreed that program objectives were not about personal gain, but to protect the community of Sterling City,” Cooper said. “I don’t know where else they are working on private property at this level to prevent wildfires. It’s great to see communities band together.”
“It’s a one-of-a-kind initiative, and with continued successes could become a national standard.”