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February 2011

Controlled Burn: Focus Group Helps County Leaders Understand Controlled Burns

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a 6-part series on controlled burns.

Although fire is an important tool in a rancher's range management toolbox, its role is sometimes misunderstood by the general public, who see only its potential for destruction.

In dry times, particularly when burn bans are in effect, county leaders find themselves in the difficult position of balancing the conservation needs of ranching constituents with public safety.

To help facilitate informed discussions and sound decision-making, this series will provide an introduction to the topic and then explore: the effect of a controlled burn on the environment; equipment of a controlled burn; public relations of a controlled burn; managing smoke during a controlled burn; and safety practices of a controlled burn.

In the world of ranching, the terms "prescribed burning" and "controlled burning" are used interchangeably, each denoting fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to rangeland or forest fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives.

"On the ranch, we don't usually haggle over whether we call it prescribed burning or controlled burning, even though the NRCS conservation practice is prescribed burning," Mark Moseley, rangeland management specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), says. "But as we explain the need for it to people who don’t live on the land, we have to remember that words matter. A recent survey of suburban residents showed that they strongly preferred the term 'controlled burn,' because it implied that someone was in control and therefore the risks were minimized."

Controlled burn truths and myths

As the conversation about controlled burns continues, it is important that people — citizens and leaders — understand the benefits of this practice.

Controlled burning can: help control unwanted plants such as Ashe juniper and eastern red cedar; rearrange plant structure for wildlife; improve forage quality for animals; encourage nutrient recycling; increase carbon sequestration in the long term because of improved plant community vigor and health.

Of course, it is equally important to address lingering misperceptions. "There is a mistaken idea that controlled burning equals a high mortality rate for wildlife," Moseley says. "In actuality, very few free-ranging animals are killed by controlled burns. They get out of the way."

Another misperception is that controlled burning increases the risk of wildfire, he says. In fact, very few controlled burns escape. The science and art of burning have provided safe prescriptions and techniques.

Because many people perceive that controlled burns are inherently risky, county officials often find themselves in a conundrum, asking, "How do we balance the conservation needs of ranchers with the demands for public safety?" This question becomes most urgent when Texas turns dry and county commissioners implement burn bans for their jurisdictions.

There are really no specific, objective criteria for implementing burn bans, Moseley says. Most county officials rely on the advice of their local fire officials, input from local citizens and a dryness rating scale called the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI).

In rural areas, volunteer fire departments provide primary fire response. Many times, the departments have limited resources and are reluctant to support controlled burning, because of cost, time and the need to be ready to respond to wildfires, he says.

"Range managers understand the need for burn bans," Moseley says. "The problem is that governing bodies interpret the local government code for burning differently. Even in neighboring counties, ranchers can find themselves operating under a completely different set of rules based on the understanding of their local county officials. "

In some cases, county commissioners completely ban all burning, removing the opportunity for range improvement during dry times, he says. In other cases, the county commissioners offer some exemptions (which the local government code allows), creating political headaches for themselves because there is no objective measure for determining who can burn and who can’t, he says.

To further complicate the situation, certified prescribed burn managers do not have to ask for permission to burn, even during a burn ban, Moseley says.

Plus, non-ranching constituents may tend to see only the potential risk of a large fire burning, even one that is supervised, so the elected officials find themselves in the political crosshairs if they allow burning.

Finally, burn bans and controlled burning is an episodic issue, Moseley says. For the most part, county commissioners do not have to think about this issue unless conditions are severely dry, so it is a relatively low priority in the overall scheme of county business, he explains. But when conditions are right, the issue becomes urgent and emotional.

"In all fairness, county officials often find themselves in a difficult situation when it comes to controlled burning, when conditions lend themselves to a burn ban," Moseley says. "But the need for range management doesn't stop just because Texas is experiencing dry times."

Inform, educate, train

Good information and training are the keys to finding the appropriate balance, so in 2009 a burn ban focus group was created to explore the problem and find appropriate solutions.

From the outset, the objective of the focus group has been to help local county officials become more comfortable with invoking and lifting burn bans. The membership included county judges and county commissioners as well as representatives from NRCS, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Wildlife Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Forest Service, Texas Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and others.

The first step was funding a 27-question survey that was provided to county officials across Texas. It was designed to capture objective, not emotional, responses and resulted in a statistical profile of how county officials managed burn bans. This survey was funded by the Texas Coalition of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and conducted by the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources.

"The survey was instructive," Moseley says. "For instance, we learned that while many county officials understand the benefits of controlled burning, they also tend to lump controlled burning in with fire hazards such as trash burning and fireworks. Even though very few controlled burns escape, the perception sometimes is that they are a high-risk activity."

Armed with knowledge, the burn ban focus group participants divided into 3 work groups — policy, technical issues and education.

The policy group recommended that the Texas Prescribed Burn Law not be changed, but clarified to ensure consistent interpretation.

The technical issues group realized that many county officials were relying on the KBDI as an objective measure for triggering a burn ban. While the KBDI is a useful tool, it should be used in concert with other indicator tools for optimum fire behavior predictions. The good news is these tools already exist, Moseley says, so it is a matter of conducting appropriate training, which has already begun.

The education work group is identifying opportunities for training of county officials and volunteer fire departments. They are also developing a checklist that will help county officials construct an effective burn exemption policy and assess whether someone who requests permission to conduct a controlled burn during a burn ban should be granted an exemption. In addition, they are identifying steps that ranchers and burn associations can take to make a controlled burn more acceptable to a county's citizens.

For instance, the Kimble County Prescribed Burn Association has an effective public relations/education program that helps local citizens understand the planning, the protocol and the benefits of prescribed burning.

"While we range managers are pro-controlled burning, we're against wildfires," Moseley says. "We don't want anyone to use the tool of fire unless they are well-trained, well-prepared and qualified. The benefits of controlled burning come with a big responsibility."•


"Controlled Burn" is from the February 2011 issue of The Cattleman magazine.