Fires helpful when handled, director says

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    Smokey the Bear’s “only you can prevent forest fires” slogan educated citizens about fires, but alumni and students at the ranch management Roundup learned that smoke on the horizon isn’t always a bad thing.As the rain brought relief to dry conditions outside Saturday, Charles Taylor, the superintendant at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station Sonora Research Center, and ecologist Jim Ansley discussed with more than 70 people the benefits of prescribed fires, including improving vegetation, increasing plant and animal biodiversity, and preventing wildfires.

    “It’s hard to use fire during these dry conditions because of political reasons,” Taylor said. “But these are ideal conditions for prescribed fires.”

    Kerry Cornelius, associate director of the ranch management program, said controlled fires could reduce grass fires by limiting the dry fields that act as volatile fuels for dangerous wildfires.

    In addition to reducing the risk of wildfires, prescribed fires can provide other ecological benefits for the land.

    Cornelius said the vegetation growing after prescribed fires has been shown to improve the water cycle because the vegetation reduces the amount of runoff into rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

    “When it does rain after a drought, a lot of soil is washed into our reservoirs that store our water supply; because of this build up, we can’t store as much,” Cornelius said. “That’s why brush control is so important.”

    Despite these benefits, Texas has been slow to use prescribed fires because of a fire-suppressive culture sparked from the early settlement of Texas.

    “The problem in Texas is we’ve had a long fear of fire,” Taylor said. “Back when Texas was settled, there were no ways to manage fires because there were no highways or volunteer firefighters.”

    As a result, Taylor said, after a fire, many farmers were left with little or no grassland for cattle to eat and no way to transport the cattle to other farms. These experiences and the work of anti-fire campaigns have caused Texans to be afraid of fire.

    “Smokey the Bear’s message worked a little too well,” Taylor said. “He should have gone to fire school so he would know the benefits of these fires.”

    Taylor, who performed a prescribed fire last week during a burn ban, said he has faced resistance when trying to execute controlled burning. His membership in the Edward Plateau Burning Association, which teaches farmers fire safety tips and regularly performs prescribed burns in eight counties in West Texas, has helped him alleviate that conflict.

    “It wasn’t until we had a critical mass of people that they allowed us to get around,” Taylor said. “We had to prove to them that we could burn safely, and we have.”

    George Teague, the fire chief of the Weatherford Fire Department, said in the past, farmers did prescribed burns every spring, and the fires could be done under the right situation.

    “If they can be done effectively on days of high humidity and low winds, they could be very beneficial,” Teague said. “But they have to be highly controlled and highly restricted. They almost have to do it on a case-on-case, day-by-day basis.”

    Cornelius said he hoped the benefits of prescribed fires would bring fire awareness to citizens.

    “People see smoke on the horizon and they think farmers are burning,” Cornelius said. “But what they are doing is helping you.