AUSTWELL – Sometimes fire is just what the doctor ordered.
It has restorative properties, at least for the coastal prairie, a habitat as endangered as the whooping cranes and the attwater prairie chickens who make it their home.
Biologists say the prairie once spread from Corpus Christi to Lafayette, La. but today, less than one-tenth of a percent remains because it was developed for farming, cattle grazing and homes.
As the assistant fire management officer for four national wildlife refuges in Texas, it is Scott Affeldt’s job to change that.
He’s prescribed fire at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and is playing catch up administering it there because parts of the refuge have been underwater for nearly a year.
“We’ve had over 70 inches to date since Sept. 1 of last year,” he said while driving his pickup truck on a portion of the refuge known as the “Tatton Unit.”
Wednesday, it had dried out enough for him to oversee the burning of about 900 acres on Tatton.
“If we can burn up the woody species’ canopy, it will allow for more sunlight and moisture to get to the grasses so they can eventually out compete,” Affeldt said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last burned this part of the refuge three years ago. Affeldt said it will take at least 10 years to see the landscape return to a prairie.
“If you don’t do it multiple times, you’re actually just putting Miracle-Gro out there,” he said.
But it is not as simple as lighting a match.
Fish and Wildlife Service notified adjacent property owners and worked with the National Weather Service to hypothesize what path smoke from a fire would likely take.
Wednesday, the wind was blowing between 5-8 mph south and they hypothesized that the smoke would go up 4,000 feet in the air once the fire got going.
Knowing that, at about 9:30 a.m., Fish and Wildlife Service staff set the fire by using drip torches and walking north of SH 35 for a little over a mile.
This was what they called the “back fire” and what had the most potential to affect the refuge’s neighbors. That’s because it doesn’t generate enough heat to pull the smoke up.
Affeldt warned his staff they may have to put the fire out if the smoke got too thick for the hundreds, possibly thousands, of cars traversing the highway to do so safely.
But by about 11 a.m., that fear wasn’t realized, so staff turned east with their drip torches to set what they called the “flanking fire” and at about 2 p.m. they set the “head fire,” which moved with the wind and created the column of smoke they’d been predicting.
Junior Munoz was one of the 14 staff members literally in the hot seat on Wednesday.
His job was to look for and put out any flames that made it over tilled land they called the “fire break.”
He drove a UTV carrying between 50-100 gallons of water, and, like his coworkers, wore a yellow, flame retardant button-down shirt that grew sootier as the day wore on.
“Sometimes, it’s so bad you can’t stand the heat,” Munoz said while pointing to four water bottles in his pack.
Munoz normally performs maintenance at the refuge.
Laura Bonneau, the refuge’s visitors services manager, said sometimes, staff take on other duties, but fire management requires them to be able to walk three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds. They must also maintain their physical fitness by devoting one hour a work day to it whether that’s running or biking.
Part of Bonneau’s job Wednesday was assuring the public that yes, FWS knew what it was doing, and no, it was not hurting animals.
In some cases, FWS was setting out a buffet for the animals in its charge.
Birds of prey looked for mice fleeing the fire while swallows literally swallowed up bugs doing the same.
Melissa Baccus, who is an intern at the refuge and was watching the prescribed fire, summed it up this way: “Animals are smarter than people give them credit for.”