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Prepare Properly for a Prescribed Burn

By Robert Fears

Rising input costs and drought have caused producers to carefully examine their management programs for ways to operate the ranch more efficiently. An evaluation of range management practices has convinced many producers that Mother Nature has been doing it right from the beginning.

In an attempt to adapt to her ways, managers are converting pastures to native grasses, initiating grazing systems that mimic eating habits of the early buffalo and using fire to control brush.

Before cities and towns were built on our grasslands, fires ignited by lightning burned across the landscape until they reached natural barriers such as rivers, stony hills and sparse vegetative cover.

Most brush was killed from these fires, but grass grew back to be more vigorous and nutritious than before.

When people began inhabiting the country, efforts were made to prevent wildfires as much as possible. When they did occur, immediate action was taken to extinguish them. As a result, lack of fire coupled with overgrazing encouraged dense brush growth.

With the disappearance of open range, land reclamation and proper management became necessary. The role of fire in rangeland ecology was soon recognized and efforts were expended toward gaining acceptance of its use as a range management tool.

Prescribed fire, like most other land management practices, can cause more harm than good if it is not done correctly. When executed properly, however, it is a safe, effective and economical tool.

Good preparation is essential for a successful burn, as proven by Frank Price and his son, Sims, who ranch near Sterling City. They have used prescribed burns for several years to control prickly pear and cedar without letting the fire get out of control.

Frank and Sims' conservation work has earned them the Outstanding Rangeland Steward Award from Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and Texas Section, Society for Range Management, and they are the Region IV winners of the National Cattlemen's Association Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP).

Proper planning equals safety

"We feel that our prescribed burns have been successful because of the time we devote to planning and preparation," says Sims Price, a state certified burn boss.

"When pastures need brush control, have enough fuel to carry a fire and contain adequate soil moisture, we begin planning a burn. A Prescribed Burning Management Plan is completed and filed with the county judge, county commissioner, fire department and sheriff's department. We also notify companies that have utility lines across the property. If a ranch has oil or gas wells or wind turbines on the property, it is recommended that the appropriate companies be contacted."

To become a certified burn boss, Sims had to attend a weeklong school sanctioned by the Texas Prescribed Burning Board. After completing the school, he had to take an exam and receive a score of at least 80 percent. In addition to the school, he had to obtain a minimum of 30 days' experience in prescribed burning with 5 of those days as burn boss.

The burn management plan drafted by Sims contains the ranch name, the pasture number or name, number of acres to be burned, and objectives of the burn. Pre-burn and post-burn grazing management needed to accomplish the prescribed burn and meet objectives are described. Information is also provided on the type and dimensions of fireguards and blacklines, firing methods for blacklines and the main fire and the plan of action should the fire jump a fireguard and/or blacklines.

"Another important part of our planning and preparation is organizing an experienced crew," states Frank Price. "The crew nucleus is Sims and me plus our 2 ranch hands. We ask neighbors who are experienced in conducting prescribed burns to complete the group. Inexperienced people are sometimes used, but they are placed where they are within hearing and speaking distance of an experienced crew member."

"Having the right amount and type of equipment at the burn site is important for keeping the fire under control," adds Sims. "Our water-carrying equipment consists of 4 pickup trucks with 200-gallon tanks, a 1-ton pickup that carries 500 gallons, and a utility vehicle with a 50-gallon tank.

"Each vehicle has a reversible pump that is capable of drawing water from a stock tank found in every pasture. In addition, the fire department either lends us a truck or furnishes one with a crew. Other fire fighting equipment at the site is a dozer, maintainer and hand tools that include flappers, axes and shovels. We start each piece of mechanical equipment the day before we burn to make sure that it is operating properly."

"We try to maintain a cooperative effort with the county and city officials," Frank explains. "They are invited to participate in our prescribed fires so they can learn about behavior of range fires and how to control them. The more exposure, the better trained they will be for fighting wildfires and the better they will understand that prescribed burns are beneficial and can be done safely."

The weather station is called a few days prior to the planned burn to determine whether forecasted conditions are suitable. The day of the burn, the weather people are asked to call one of the Prices if they see chances of abrupt changes that may make burning hazardous. When an adverse weather change is predicted, the prescribed burn is immediately extinguished.

"In addition to working closely with the weather station, several of the crew members carry portable weather instruments and measure wind velocity, air temperature and humidity on a regular basis," says Sims. "We want wind velocity to be from 10 to 20 miles per hour including gusts. Humidity should be between 20 and 40 percent. We also watch the direction in which the wind is moving the fire. If the fire starts moving in the wrong direction, we shut it down."

"Establishment of firebreaks is an important preparation task that helps keep the fire under control," says Frank. "We are now building permanent firebreaks around our pastures. On the north and east sides, they are 500 feet wide. They are 100 feet wide on the south and west sides because that is where our prevailing winds come from. We grub the brush from these areas and let them develop a grass cover. The grass provides fuel for blacklines when we are ready to prepare for a burn."

The Prices are very concerned about safety and make it part of burn preparation. They supply plenty of drinking water to crew members and encourage them to drink it often. Frank explains that it is easy to become dehydrated during a fire, and the best way to avoid that happening is to drink plenty of water.

"Another safety measure is the ability to communicate with each other," Frank says. "Portable 2-way radios, which operate on the same frequency, are carried in each vehicle, by the lighting crew and by the fire boss. Crew members are not allowed to talk on cell phones or any other communication device except the radios. They are trained to converse in short phrases and not tie up a radio with a long dissertation. The crew is taught to communicate important information and do it quickly."

Part of the range management plan

"We burn during the winter because our grass recovers better than from summer fires," says Frank. "Fires burn much hotter during the summer months and grass recovery can be very slow. With good soil moisture, we see green vegetation within a week after a winter burn. Within 6 weeks, we flash graze the burned area with cattle and sheep so they will consume the tender growth of whitebrush, agarita, lotebush, 4-wing saltbush and catclaw that resprouted after the fire."

Price Ranch uses a rotational grazing system that allows forage management for drought. Frank formulated a grazing index that everyone on the ranch is capable of using.

The number 1 represents an average quantity of forage in a pasture. Quantities below average are given a negative rating and an above-average forage supply receives a rating greater than 1.

Frank rates pastures frequently and uses the information to write rotation plans. The plans are subject to change based on the amount of rainfall. When cattle are to be worked they are put in a pasture closer to the corrals. Grazing will be reduced on a pasture scheduled for a prescribed burn so a fuel load can be produced.

The combination of grazing management and prescribed fire is working well on the Price Ranch. As I drove through the front gate, I immediately sensed that range conservation is being practiced. There was more grass than in most pastures I had passed during my trip from Georgetown. The Prices were recognized for their conservation practices recently with receipt of the Regional Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

During my visit with Frank and Sims Price, I realized that a big advantage of their prescribed burn program is that it has given them a deep understanding of fire behavior. They experienced 7 wildfires on the ranch in 2011, with one burning dangerously close to Frank's house. They calmly and methodically gained control of each fire and saved the house from damage. If Frank and Sims had not had the experience and equipment for managing fire, they probably would not have survived the ordeals as well as they did.


"Prepare Properly for a Prescribed Burn" is from the November 2013 issue of The Cattleman magazine.