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Wildlife, Landscape Recovering Year After Big Fire
AUSTIN, Texas — It’s been about a year since the biggest wildfire in Texas Panhandle history roared across the prairie. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, wildfires east of Amarillo burned 907,245 acres in late March 2006.
Now, as ranchers, wildlife biologists and university researchers look out on a changed landscape, most experts agree that in the long run, the fires will be good for wildlife and the land, although they were tragic for many people.
* * *
“We were sitting there looking at the sky, and the western horizon just got orange like we were looking at the sunset, and that’s when the firefighters said ‘Here it comes.’”
Rancher LH Webb has by now told the story of March 12, 2006 many times, the tale of how he tried to save his cattle and nearly lost his life.
That Sunday morning, as the Webb family returned from church to their Seven Cross Ranch, the wind was gusting close to 50 miles per hour, the sky gone gray-brown with airborne prairie topsoil. The Seven Cross comprises about 10,000 acres in Gray County. That day, they had 780 cattle, foraging as best they could in the dry pastures. Months of punishing drought had left the country ripe for wildfire.
At 3 p.m., neighbors called. The fire was coming.
“My wife and I decided we’d load some things we didn’t want destroyed—the family Bible, the computer, photos,” Webb said. “I told my two little girls to get whatever was special to them, their favorite stuffed animals.”
Webb sent his wife and girls to a safer place up the road. He and his son stayed “to see what we could do to save the place. I got the bright idea to go a mile south down a pasture road to open a couple of gates, try to let the cattle escape.”
“When we got to the gates, the fire was there, a wall of flame,” Webb said. “It was either take the offense and go through it or wait to let it come toward us. I told my son to hold on and pray and we just drove through it. It was zero visibility, the cab filled with smoke. My diesel pickup stalled out three times and finally I phoned a friend, who came to get us. By that time, the fire had blown through and it was just blowing dust and smoke.”
Lightning apparently does strike twice in some places. About a year later, a second natural disaster struck the Webb family. On March 28, a powerful tornado tore the roof off both ranch houses, which had survived the fire.
“We made it to the basement,” Webb recounts. “Our ears popped, and dirt was coming down through the trap door, the house was shaking. But we were all safe, and we were able to stay in the house that night, with buckets catching the rain.”
Nonetheless, Webb says he still loves his way of life and the big sky prairie country, and he sees reason to hope for a better future.
“It’s going to take a while for this land to recover, but there have been fires here for centuries before any human beings were on this land, and it’s always come back. All these native plants and wildlife, they evolved with fire. It’s man—we haven’t evolved with fire, we’ve kept it in check. When it comes, it can be devastating to us in terms of our operations, and psychologically. When I see smoke on the horizon, I pray it’s a controlled burn. I’ve seen how it can wipe out 170 head of cattle and 30 miles of fence in the blink of an eye.”
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“The fire was a very bad thing for ranching operations, fences, structures, people and livestock,” said Jeff Bonner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist in Pampa. “But for wildlife and habitat, it will be good in the long run.”
Bonner says fire has a way of rejuvenating almost every plant on the prairie. It increases plant diversity, with a corresponding response from wildlife in terms of abundance and diversity. He cautions this is all rainfall-dependent. The big fires were followed by months of continuing drought before good rains began to fall last autumn.
“But with the moisture we’ve had in most of the area this past fall through the spring—we’ve have five inches just in March—this country’s really loaded and in the chute to jump out this year,” Bonner says.
This spring, rolling prairie hills that looked like the Sahara Desert last March right after the fire show lush green again. The grasses are coming back, and the yucca, and woody plants like wild plum.
The hurt that may take longest to heal is the larger trees, especially big cottonwoods along creeks and rivers that provide important roosting habitat for turkeys.
“The big cottonwood trees were probably the biggest loss,” Bonner said. “It’s hard to replace a 100 year old cottonwood, not just in terms of wildlife habitat, but in terms of beauty and aesthetics.”
Ground-nesting birds like quail and lesser prairie chickens also took a hit.
“The sheer scale and size of the fire and having a hard time finding a place to build a nest afterward hurt lesser prairie chickens,” Bonner said. “This wasn’t a patchy fire that burned some places and skipped others—birds would have to fly miles outside the burn area to find anywhere to nest. Follow that up with a drought, and you have little or no insects for them to eat.”
“The flip side of all that is quail and prairie chickens have survived wildfires before, and they are still there. And now with improved conditions, increased weed production, as well as deferred grazing for ranchers under the Natural Resource Conservation Service, that will do a lot to provide nesting cover in years to come.”
Bonner says 62 percent of ranchers in the burn area (including Webb) signed up for two year livestock grazing deferment offered by the NRCS. This will let the land rest and allow grasses to recover. Under the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of several federal farm bill programs for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, ranchers are being paid $5 per acre to rest their pastures.
Larger, more mobile animals like white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope appeared to have fared better.
“We run a 15 mile Gray County spotlight route where we census deer every year, and the entire area had burned along that route,” Bonner said. “One year after the fire, we saw about the same number of deer.”
“Pronghorn are real mobile, they have huge home ranges, and are notorious for moving where the groceries are. The best place to find green is in the burn area a year later. All you’re seeing there is they moved where the food sources are.”
* * *
A team of Texas Tech University scientists has launched a three-year study of how plants and birds are recovering in the burn area. The work is funded in part with a $45,000 TPWD grant, using hunter dollars from upland game bird stamp sales. Researchers include professors in fire, plant and avian ecology.
The team has set up three types of study plots: burn area plots where exclosure fencing keeps grazing livestock out, burn area plots where grazing is allowed, and plots just outside the burn area. In these areas, they are observing and analyzing changes in the soil, plants, and birds.
It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, but already in the first year some trends are emerging.
“What we’ve seen so far is an increase in grass mortality,” said Sandra Rideout-Hanzak, PhD, a university assistant professor of wildland fire science. “And this is sort of surprising because the grasslands adapted to having their tops removed, whether by bison or cattle or fire, and they usually come back again. What we think happened is the combination of extreme fire conditions, followed by no rain for months and by wind blowing away topsoil caused about twice as much mortality in the burned area as in the unburned sections, much more than we expected to see.”
Nonetheless, Rideout-Hanzak echoes Webb and Bonner on the long view.
“Long term it probably will be good,” she said. “In a few years, when those dead cottonwood trees start to fall, the turkey population will probably decrease. But over 50-to-100 years, that’s probably part of normal wildlife fluctuations. With good rainfall, the grasses have the potential for greater yield long-term than they did before the fire. It’s a temporary thing the ranchers are dealing with where their grass yields have been reduced, but eventually it’ll be back just as good or better as it was before the fire.”
* * *
As chance would have it, a coalition of ranchers had just begun to get things rolling with the Texas Panhandle Prescribed Burn Association last spring, when the big fires hit.
“We’d been getting together equipment and grant money for the burn association, and then the wildfire kind of changed all that,” said Webb, who still believes strongly in the use of prescribed fire as a land management tool.
“It’s still going to go,” he said of the burn association, but notes that “the work’s kind of been done for this decade, and then some. The wildfire pretty well cleaned house.”
Webb emphasized the differences between prescribed burns and uncontrolled wildfire.
“You need fuel for a controlled burn, and you want higher soil moisture so things will stay controlled. This was too wide spread, nearly a million acres. If you can just burn a section, the wildlife can spread out elsewhere. And even a controlled burn’s not good if you don’t get rainfall soon after. But prescribed fire’s a good thing, and I’m still an advocate of it; it’s a great tool.”
About fires, tornadoes and most other things, in spite of the adversity nature seems to want to throw at him, Webb remains upbeat and positive.
“You’ve got to count your blessings,” he said. “I think I’m really lucky. I walked away from the largest fire in Panhandle history and an EF3 tornado. It’s all in God’s hands, anyway.”
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