Prescribed Fires = Good Burns

Prescribed Fires = Good Burns

Season 1 Episode 11


Under the Texas Sky: S1:E11: Prescribed Fires = Good Burns

Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.


Before our cities and towns. Before the first settlers introduced agriculture and ranching… the landscape of Texas …was often conditioned… by a shocking force of nature.


With a flash of brilliant light, a tree suddenly becomes a giant matchstick and falls to the ground igniting the surrounding vegetation. A wildfire is born.


Wildfire has been nature's way of rejuvenating the land for millions of years. Preserving the native vegetation that ultimately sustains the wildlife within that ecosystem.


Then along came humankind and a second way to start wildfires. European settlers and Native Americans alike were known to use controlled fires to provide better land access, improve hunting, and clear areas for farming. But as more settlers arrived, communities formed, and people began to fear fire. So much so that by the early 20th century suppressing fire became official U.S. federal policy.


But suppressing fire allowed invasive species to thrive. It also allowed a buildup of dense understory vegetation in forests that all too often became fuel for catastrophic wildfires. Over the years however, scientists and land managers began to study the benefits of introducing planned periodic fires to the landscape. The practice is known as prescribed burning, and it is now considered the most efficient and cost-effective tool to manage habitats.

In this podcast we'll learn how prescribed burns are used to manage the natural landscape. Stay with us.


From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.


[MICHELLE] One of our primary mandates is land conservation and taking care of that land, and in our view that includes stewardship.

Michelle Bertelsen is a Land Steward at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. She plans and executes prescribed burns on the land for both research and maintenance. Producer Randall Maxwell visited with Michelle just a few days after a burn of their savannah meadow.

[RANDALL] What's that?

[MICHELLE] So Antelope Horn is one of our native milkweeds, and you'll often see it sort of wafting just after we burn getting down in touch with the soil.

[RANDALL] Michelle Bertelsen knows her plants. Growing up she spent a lot of time in the tall grassland areas of her grandfather's ranch. She says it was a place where she just felt happy.

[MICHELLE] Then I went to school and I knew I wanted to go into research, but I didn't have the stomach for animal research, so I gravitated more towards plants. And I think this is all a secret plan of mine to be able to be in a ranch without owning one.

[RANDALL] Mission accomplished Michelle. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center covers nearly 300 acres with nine of those acres as botanical gardens. The rest of the land is designated as a nature preserve providing Michelle with multiple habitats to study the impacts of prescribed burns.

[MICHELLE] The landscape that we have here at the Center is a fire-adapted system. It has burned historically for a long time and the system actually needs it to be healthy, so we're putting that missing piece back onto the landscape. Our primary interest is diversity and overall health. But then we're also mitigating fuels buildup. So, if we do get a wildfire, we've already taken care of some of those fuels ahead of time and so containment becomes easier.

[RANDALL] Texas Parks and Wildlife regularly uses prescribed fire on land in state parks and wildlife management areas across the state. It is always a well-planned and coordinated operation to manage a prescribed burn. And it's no different for the Wildflower Center. Michelle creates a very detailed fire plan. That plan covers everything from the fire prescription, to how many personnel and different agencies are involved. There's the ignition team putting fire on the ground, there's a suppression team and spotters to make sure the fire is not jumping out of bounds. But there's one key factor that will steer the direction of the fire. Wind.

[MICHELLE] When we start a burn, we're looking at the wind conditions and so if the wind is headed in sort of Northern direction, then your burn is going to start off moving against it in a Southern direction. So typically, you'll have two burn teams that start at one point and then they slowly start wrapping the unit letting fire move backwards against the wind. And then it will go into the area that's already black and go out.

[RANDALL] Michelle refers to the prescribed burn area as a unit. I'll let her explain.

[MICHELLE] We have two types of units, and when I say unit what I mean is this is a piece of land that we are managing for a particular goal. We have management units, and so those are wild land areas that are managed for health. But then we also have research units. We have a long-term research study on land management that's been going on since the early 2000s. And so, we're studying prescribed fire in different seasons, prescribed mowing and then we have a controlled treatment and then we track what happens to the plants over time.



[RANDALL] Michelle and I walk across the charred earth of a recent controlled burn. Along the rolling contour of the land everything looks blackened and brittle, except for the mature oaks and some hearty stands of cactus.

[MICHELLE] The area that we are at is called the savannah meadow. A little bit redundant in its name, but it's our sort of big display meadow right in front of our gallery area. And so, this is where we like to demonstrate and show people what a Texas savannah looks like.

[RANDALL] So this fire, it pretty much burns everything doesn't it?

[MICHELLE] It does, it takes off most of the herbaceous material off the top. It's going to limb up the trees some. We'll kill a few trees but not very many usually. Mostly what happens is the big trees get limbed up, and then it takes out some smaller ones, and what that's doing for us is opening up the savannah area and keeping the grasslands grassland. The other thing that it does is that it takes off the thick thatch that the grass leaves on the ground. And what we really like about that is that the seeds are already on the ground or in the ground tend to survive the fire, and this gives them one shot to germinate. And so that's going to give us a pop of diversity next year assuming that the rains cooperate. It's always about rain.



From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.

Support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. In fact, since 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $190 million to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of our state. You can help by becoming a member. Find out how at


Over countless centuries, fire has been among the most important processes for shaping ecological communities. It clears areas of overgrowth so new life can take root, creating improved habitat for our wild things. Yet, as settlers claimed pristine lands and communities sprouted, efforts grew to suppress fire. One result? When wildfires ignite, they do so with increased fury. Yet, as producer Randall Maxwell tells us, by intentionally introducing fire to the landscape through something called prescribed burns, we can protect property and restore vital habitat.

[RANDALL] Michelle Bertelsen's love of the tall grassland prairie eventually led her to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center where she's a Land Steward. She performs research and maintenance on the Center's wild land habitats using a tool called prescribed burns.

[MICHELLE] Each plot of land has its own returnable, that's how often we treat it, how often we burn it. And that is based on the soils. It's based on the vegetation that's there. And the vegetation we'd like to see. So, for the most part most of our units are grown on a three to five-year cycle. Some of them are longer four to 12, and that's driven by the land itself: what it needs, what it responds to, and as we manage, we watch what happens. So, a lot of land management is watching and listening. This is very much a conversation with our landscape. So, we do our treatment, we see what happens, we make another small adjustment. The idea is we're trying to create a trajectory that pushes this land toward a healthy state.

[RANDALL] The periodic burns seem to be the right conversation starter. The diversity of grasses has allowed one native species to start a comeback.

[MICHELLE] So this area was a ranch that was pretty heavily grazed and browsed over a long time. And years ago, we lost a lot of our big tall grasses and what we have left are sort of the ones that can handle that treatment but we're slowly seeing Indian Grass and the other big grasses slowly return which is exciting.

[RANDALL] The idea of grasses returning seems like a real success story. Could a complete return of native grasses happen? I asked Michelle what the land looked like before ranching dominated this part of Texas.

[MICHELLE] One hundred fifty years ago you would've encountered a sea of grass with scattered trees. So, the steep slopes, the drainages would have been pretty brushy. There would have been scattered dense woodlands, but in the middle, you would’ve just seen grasses waving and there would have been a lot of little bluestem.


[RANDALL] As Michelle and I wind our way around the trail through the newly burned savannah meadow. I noticed they missed a spot.

[RANDALL] And look at this stuff here. Ya'll decided, okay we're going to leave that?

[MICHELLE] Yeah so, the fire just went out here by itself. One of the great things about fire is that it is very patchy, when our over-arching goal is diversity. We want diversity inside a community, so lots of species. We also want diversity between communities. So, we want this to be a little bit different than that, which is a little bit different than that. And because the fire is so patchy it helps us create that patchy landscape. There’re some areas that every time we run a burn through there, that spot always goes out. And when we do our surveys that spot is just a little different than the one next to it. It's great seeing that kind of diversity evolve over time.

[RANDALL] Restoring and maintaining natural landscapes supports a diversity in native plants and animals. It's a mission shared by Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages their visitors to appreciate native flora wherever they live. Their research is focused on how to take better care of our natural world and reconnect people with nature.


[RANDALL] As Michelle and I are leaving the trail a group of children are just starting out to the savannah meadow.


[RANDALL] I'm sure they'll be asking about all the burned plants. But more importantly I hope they learn to connect with nature every day.


[MICHELLE] One of the things we're trying to do actually is figure out how we can co-exist a little bit better. So, like every square inch of green space in a city needs not to just be beautiful but functional. It needs to be capturing water or cleaning it. It needs to be providing habitat. Any space we have we can make it function more like a wild land. It'll never get totally there, but we're trying to figure out how to make it do as well as possible and reduce the impact of those urban areas on the wild lands themselves.

[RANDALL] Sounds good to me. Walking the charred trail with Land Steward Michelle Bertelsen, I'm Randall Maxwell.

What do you love about the Texas outdoors; what have you experienced that you’d like to share with the world? Tell by going to and click on the Get Involved link. We’ll be in touch.


And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at or wherever you get your podcasts.

We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.

I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.

Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.

Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.

[MICHELLE] One of our primary mandates is land conservation and taking care of that land, and in our view that includes stewardship.