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Pro: Controlled fires can help agricultural community grow

By Jessica Priest
March 31, 2013 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 31, 2013 at 11:01 p.m.


Stephen Diebel stood Thursday morning on crunchy, charred earth, taking stock of what Mother Nature had accomplished in a matter of months.

Green grass peaked out of even the smallest of crevices. He hoped that in time the blackened trees standing upright would crumble, allowing photosynthesis to work its magic on what remained.

Diebel Cattle Co. was established in the 1860s to raise calves as the first point in a beef operation, Diebel said. And fire has long been used as the most environmentally and pocketbook-friendly tool to clear the about 13,000 acres of land of pesky brush that accumulates during dry weather.

Huisache and Macartney rose plants not only soak up sun rays but also rainwater, preventing it from percolating down into the aquifers, he said.

"Essentially, we're in the business of growing grass," the fifth-generation rancher said. "Unfortunately, our side of the story is never told."

It is a story that involves careful planning. On Feb. 1, the wind was blowing at a light 10 to 12 miles per hour, and humidity was in the desirable 20 to 30 percent range.

Twelve workers, armed with bulldozers, four-wheelers and thousands of gallons of water, first lit what's called a back burn inside of a fire guard, or a 100-foot wide perimeter of plowed earth that fire cannot cross over, at 10 a.m.

They allowed it to make it halfway across the field before lighting the other side, also known as the head fire. In essence, the fire canceled itself out about 1:30 p.m., but a few workers still patrolled it well into the night, he said.

"I wouldn't subject people in my family to that if I thought it was dangerous," Diebel said of how his wife and 6-year-old son stood nearby snapping photos as a plume of smoke rose straight into the air.

And Diebel gave Victoria County Fire Marshal Ron Pray a heads-up about an hour beforehand.

Pray said that is typical and is why notifying the public can be challenge. No state law requires the agricultural community to tell him it's going to conduct a prescribed fire. He said most are responsible, though, often calling dispatch and submitting a burn plan as a courtesy. Pray has stacks of the documents on his desk, and they outline details, such as elevation of the land, the species of animals living there and how far away the nearest road is.

Aransas, Calhoun, Jackson, Matagorda and Refugio counties, which are considered to be in the coastal salt marsh, are the exception. They have to report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality verbally and in writing before starting a prescribed fire.

And Pray can intervene when smoke inhibits traffic on a roadway as well as issue citations when someone other than a certified burn manager lights up during a burn ban.

"Some people think it's just cowboys with matches, but it doesn't work that way," Pray said, adding the weather can change in an instant, making it pointless to announce to media when the fires are set to occur.

Pray is exploring the Denton County Fire Marshal's website, which boasts a sort of electronic calendar of the fires happening in the area and also asks people to take out a permit to do one.

Commissioner Precinct 4 Clint C. Ives said he'd be hard- pressed to vote for a permitting process, especially because he understands farmers and ranchers cannot afford to drive into town when they have a small window of opportunity.

"I would seriously have to be convinced of the positive public safety effects it could have," Ives said, not objecting to the calendar idea.

Diebel, meanwhile, said he's tried alternatives to burning. Herbicide costs $30 to $50 an acre and plowing a whopping $300 to $400 an acre. He said it is not feasible.

Kirk Feuerbacher, the coastal prairies project director for The Nature Conservancy, agreed.

"Most of these herbicides are not species selective," he said. "Given the chance, 90 percent of the time a fire will not kill a perennial, it will kill some annuals."

A perennial is a plant that grows back year after year, he said.

And John DeLeon, also with The Nature Conservancy, said if those burning ensure the smoke will rise to a minimum height of 1,700 feet, it should reach the atmosphere and not irritate residents.

Dr. Gullapalli K. Rao, with the Victoria Allergy and Asthma Clinic, said smoke can particularly aggravate people with pre-existing allergies, asthma, pulmonary disease or chronic bronchitis. He said there's no long-term health effects, though.

"The mucus membrane will get back to normal for most people in a few days or weeks," he said.

Chris Kallus, a professor and the program director of Victoria College's respiratory care program, said there are far more indoor environmental irritants, such as pet dander and dust, to be worried about.

Diebel, meanwhile, hopes one day people will come to understand burning's benefits. He said animals like the white-tailed deer and wild hogs rarely get caught in the blaze and generally like munching on its aftermath: tender vegetation.

"Everybody regards fire as a negative thing, but it's a great tool. It just has to be managed," Diebel said.

Con: Officials should notify public, regulate controlled burns more

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