by Joyce and Mike Conner
Shortly after purchasing Cedar Hill Ranch in 2013, we started learning about how much a controlled burn would help to reduce the thick Yaupon understory from much of our forested area (mainly from Billy Lambert, Tim Siegmund, and Bobby Allcorn – TPWD). A reduced brush understory would allow surface plants to take hold, leading to much more productive land for feeding and sheltering the native wildlife, and improving the soils. As managers of our wildlife land, we looked forward to the time when a controlled burn could be conducted safely and productively. But the land was too dense in the first years and we had difficulty getting the surface clear for grasses – there was too much forested land and we could not manage to get enough of it ready for a controlled “grass” burn. So, Mike and family members spent years reducing Yaupon and Eastern Red Juniper by chemical and mechanical means. In more recent years, we started hearing about a “forest” burn solution.
The day finally arrived for our first forest burn on Thursday, February 27, 2020. But it did not come without many hours of preparation, both on the part of Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel and us landowners. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel must be trained as fire specialists – to understand and monitor winds and humidity, understory leaf and grass litter, snags and overhanging branches, safety zones, water and fire supply equipment, clothing and on-ground equipment, team management, safety of all people involved – the list is lengthy but necessary to ensure safety of participants and neighboring households, animals, land, and structures. Finally, they had to notify EMS and Fire Station personnel about the burn. The landowners worked with TPWD biologists to identify the acreage to be burned, called the burn unit. Bobby Alcorn then developed a detailed and comprehensive burn plan. This plan described the area to be burned, the type of burn to be conducted, and the weather conditions necessary, and it gave a comprehensive analysis of the safety issues surrounding this particular burn unit. In late 2019 Mike Conner cleared a 10-foot bare sand firebreak and also cut down dead trees from the edge of the burn unit and moved them 30 feet into the interior of the unit. Toni Aguilar, TPWD Regional Controlled Burn Coordinator, and Bobby Allcorn, local TPWD Biologist, visited the site several times to monitor and approve Mike’s progress. Mike then notified and invited all the surrounding neighbors and also members of El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists to attend.
On Thursday morning 7 Master Naturalists, one neighboring landowner, one Native Plants Society of Texas member, and 6 Texas Parks and Wildlife fire brigade personnel (a total of 15 individuals) arrived.
Everyone was given a map of the rectangular 50-acre tract that was to be burned so that everyone was familiar with the area. We volunteers were then given specific explanations and instructions about our activity and duties by Edwin Bowman, burn leader-in-training.
And then our wait began. A burn in a forested area with a mostly closed canopy or dense brushy understory needs a brisk wind, low humidity, and dry conditions. As the optimum weather circumstances neared, we moved to “Corner A” where we were given more instructions and then split into teams. Mason Conley’s team would work from Corner A and move south, Tim Siegmund’s team was to work from Corner A and move west. Since the team moving south was supposed to have less smoke, all of the women volunteers chose that team, leaving all of the men to face the worst smoke. (As it turned out, the smoke had a mind of its own and did just the opposite!) Each team had at least one walkie-talkie.
As each team started, Toni headed to the interior. We could see her occasionally and the fire that followed her path. (She was joined by different staff members at different times.) Bobby was in charge of watching the wind and humidity with his special equipment. He was in constant communication with all of the other leaders. A quick change in wind or sudden drop in humidity could cause unexpected movement of the fire, so this was a crucial task.
Surprisingly, the filled fire torches were heavy to carry in one hand (about 8 pounds). Once lit, the fire starter would “drag” the torch behind them, dripping the liquid flame in the leaf litter. This could be dangerous if you did not keep moving ahead of the flames now burning right behind your feet, or if you became distracted and turned, creating a circle around your feet of flame! Another danger could be created when you “tossed” the flames into the woods at various locations. As we volunteers waited for our turns to carry the torch, Bobby reminded us to also check across the safety zone for embers – a sign that the fire had jumped the barrier and could go rogue. This was difficult to do because the fire within the burn zone was mesmerizing! Luckily, we had Jay Whiteside (TPWD) driving one of the water trucks along the perimeter as he constantly watched for any potential problem.
Pamela lucked out and was able to experience dripping her fire torch while simultaneously riding in a utv! (Disclaimer – This was done under the supervision of one of the fire specialists.)
When the entire perimeter was torched, we regathered at the parking area for a review of the day. In the end, we learned that we had one more very important thing to do – check the entire perimeter for fire/glowing embers within 40 feet of the firebreak. Everyone decided to stay for this last job, so it was fairly quick work. When an ember or burning log was found, it was tossed farther into the interior. When Mike was told that there was one snag at the farthest corner of the burn unit that had to be taken down, he rushed back to the barn and got his bobcat. If left on its own, the snag could release embers that might travel across the firebreak and ignite a whole new part of the forest – creating a serious fire hazard! At the snag, we watched as Edwin and Mike took turns with the chain saw and the bobcat until the snag fell. Mike then moved the broken snag farther into the burn unit. After hosing down the snag’s embers, the day was now officially over (although Mike and I would need to re-visit the site over the next few days to confirm that all was still well).
We learned a lot about controlled burns that we had not previously learned from several workshops, seminars, and research. We also learned that this first burn was only the beginning. The forest would need to be burned several more times over the next years, as only some of the brushy understory was actually destroyed. Much of the yaupon and junipers will either regrow or will need another fire to finally kill it. Because the temperature, wind, and humidity must be fairly precise, it will always be difficult to plan the exact time and day for this activity. But, at least now, we feel more confident that we are able to perform it.
Below the credits are more of the many pictures taken during the day. Thanks to everyone who supervised and helped!
El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist Volunteers: Joyce and Mike Conner, Donna Lewis, Liz Lewis, Lisa Milewski, Pamela Neeley, and John Pruett.
Neighbor Volunteer: Fred Russell
NPSOT Volunteer: John Glos
TPWD Staff: Toni Aguilar, Bobby Allcorn, Edwin Bowman, Mason Conley, Tim Siegmund, and Jay Whiteside