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Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Awareness will help residents during fires

By By the Advocate Editorial Board
April 1, 2013 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated March 31, 2013 at 11:01 p.m.


Ranches and agriculture are part of Texas' heritage. From the massive tracts of the King and XIT ranches to small, family-run operations, Texans have worked and cultivated land for generations.

A big part of maintaining land is making sure the environment can replenish itself, and in many places, that involves a process known as controlled or prescribed burns.

Kirk Feuerbacher, the coastal prairies project director for The Nature Conservancy, says there are many reasons for a prescribed burn. It is the most natural and often the cheapest way to manage a landscape or property.

"Anywhere you have vegetation, it will eventually burn," Feuerbacher said.

By creating safe, controlled conditions to burn off excess vegetation, property owners are able to "reset" the environment, much like restarting a computer. The process improves the ecological site's condition by cleaning and putting nutrients back into the soil, allowing more access to sunlight and water and cutting down on the population of mosquitoes and other pests. The new growth that follows decreases runoff and draws new wildlife into the area.

Controlled burns can also be used to decrease the likelihood of a wildfire, Feuerbacher said. The prescribed burning process cuts back on excess vegetation, which can become fuel for uncontrolled fires when conditions become excessively dry during a burn ban. He pointed to instances of towns in West Texas that hold burns in certain strategic areas before the dry season comes to help prevent wildfires in the future.

These are all good reasons to hold prescribed burns, but in this area, large burns often have an effect on surrounding communities. A 400-acre controlled burn at Diebel Ranch on Salem Road in early February caused concern in the Crossroads. The smoke from this large fire drifted into Victoria, causing concern among some residents about those with respiratory health problems and those who thought the burn might have been a wildfire.

These concerns raise an important point about the need for controlled burns in the Crossroads. We understand the agricultural need for these fires, but there must be some way to notify the public about a planned burn.

That can be a difficult issue, Feuerbacher said, because prescribed burns must be conducted on days with specific weather conditions. It must be a clear day with 5-15 mph winds from a consistent direction, according to The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. Landowners may plan to hold a burn during a certain week, but they rely on weather forecasts, which are not always accurate. Those conducting a burn can notify area agencies on the day of the burn, but any advance notice is unreliable, as the weather may not follow the expected forecast. According to Feuerbacher, landowners and burn managers try to wait until conditions are right to avoid impacting large communities, but residents should be aware that prescribed burns will probably occur during a window of about two months.

That awareness could be the key to residents' concerns. We encourage area fire personnel to look into a way to advise Crossroads residents that we have entered a season when controlled burns are likely to take place. If possible, landowners should consider sending out a warning that a burn may happen in a certain window of time, which would alert residents to the possibility of a fire while allowing some flexibility if the conditions are not right on a specific day.

We recognize that prescribed burns are an important part of maintaining a safe and effective environment for agriculture, but we encourage officials and landowners to find a way to alert the public when a burn is necessary. By increasing awareness, we can decrease concerns and unnecessary alarm.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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