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Prescribed burns: just what nature ordered (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
Jan. 29, 2014 at 9:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 28, 2014 at 7:29 p.m.

Adam Hickl surveys the prescribed fire as he works as an igniter in Fannin. The team, led by The Nature Conservancy, was working to burn out invasive brush to allow the native grasses to regrow in an effort to help preserve the prairies in Texas.

DID YOU KNOW?

The practice of using fire to manage land in Texas dates back hundreds of years. Evidence suggests that pre-European settlement, some Native American tribes burned the Texas plains to promote the growth of new grasses.

Source: The nature conservancy

His face is marked with soot. He wears fire retardant clothing and a hard hat with a red emblem of an arm holding a knife sets on the dashboard of his pickup.

To an outsider, John De Leon looks like a firefighter.

But De Leon doesn't put out fires. He starts them.

De Leon, of Cuero, is a prescribed fire specialist with The Nature Conservancy. Last week, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a team of Colorado firefighters burned more about 600 acres of grasslands in the Crossroads. Fire, like sunshine and rain, is a natural part of the prairie ecosystem. Prescribed burns are an ecological management tool used to encourage the growth of native grasses and reduce invasive species of brush, De Leon said.

"We're doing what we can to restore the coastal prairie," De Leon said. "I guess you can say we're tree huggers and bunny huggers."

In addition to encouraging the growth of native grasses, prescribed burns are a way to influence a naturally occurring process, said Kirk Feuerbacher, the coastal prairies project director for The Nature Conservancy.

"Where there is any kind of vegetation it probably burned at one time another," Feuerbacher said.

He said the Texas coastal prairie ecosystem cycles between very wet and dry years with no true normal rainfall. When we get rain, vegetation grows in abundance. The vegetation then cures in the dry season. An overabundance of dried grasses and a strike of lightning cause fire. This process works over and over in nature, he said. The rate at which the fire occurs in an ecosystem is called a "return interval."

"While we pay our taxes annually, nature's cycle is actually every two to five years," Feuerbacher said.

Victoria Country Fire Marshal Ron Pray said prescribed burns are economically and environmentally better options to prevent wildfires than herbicides or plowing.

"When they manage these pastures with prescribed burning, typically the fires are easier to control and a lot of the issues that we have are negated because we can get in there and control the fire quicker," Pray said. "Ultimately our goals are the same: Be good stewards of the land and prevent wildfires."

Feuerbacher said plants such as Gulf Coast Cordgrass begin to grow back in the nutrient-enriched soil after a fire. While the plants are young, they have less lignen, a part of the plant's cell wall, which makes it harder to digest for animals. Gulf Coast Cordgrass also has more protein in it when it is younger, which is nutritionally beneficial to animals that consume it.

After about six months, the grass has increased lignen and less protein, which makes it inedible. It's also not very good tasting at that point, Feuerbacher said.

"It's like eating celery versus a young tender spinach leaf," Feuerbacher said.

Feuerbacher said Gulf Coast Cordgrass can only be grazed about three to six months after it has been burned. In order to burn a pasture, there has to be an adequate fuel source, or dry grasses, which means ranchers have to move their cattle around a pasture, allowing the range land to rest, Feuerbacher said.

De Leon said grasses are needed so that fire will carry itself across the land. Rotational grazing is also necessary to allow perennials to grow back.

If a rancher grazes more than 50 percent of what is above ground, the roots will be damaged, Feuerbacher said.

De Leon said that while coastal prairies once covered more than 6 million acres from Louisiana to Texas, less than 1 percent of these prairies remain. He said The Nature Conservancy helps to reverse the reduction of this rare ecosystem.

While De Leon said he enjoys setting fires, his favorite part of his work is its positive ecological impact.

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