EDITOR’S NOTE: This report was first published in the December 13, 2018, edition of The Canadian Record, and was amended this week to reflect current information.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A prescribed burn at the Gene Howe WMA, scheduled to be conducted on Wednesday, Jan. 23, has been postponed at the request of law enforcement officials, concerned about the fire’s potential impact on any evidence that might still be found in that area related to Thomas Brown’s death. State Representative Ken King (R-Canadian) told The Record on Wednesday that he reached out to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Executive Director Carter Smith when he learned of the planned burn, and asked that he check with law enforcement to address those concerns. “I don’t know who he talked to, but he called me back and said [the burn] was cancelled,” King reported. Chris Schenck, Statewide Fire Program Leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Division, reported earlier this week that the burn was scheduled for midweek, and that the weather forecast was favorable. He confirmed Wednesday morning, however, that the prescribed burn “has been put off for a while. I cannot comment on just why,” he said, “because I have yet to be informed.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is again planning to conduct prescribed burns on the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on Lake Marvin Road. In mid-November, notification was sent to all neighboring landowners that the new prescribed burn window would extend from Jan. 1, 2019, to April 1, 2019.
The announcement comes 10 years after the last Gene Howe WMA prescribed burn in March 2018 escaped control (photo at top) and burned 5,000 acres of land on Lake Marvin Road, threatening homes, wildlife and cattle in the area, and destroying valuable rangeland needed for grazing. Firefighters from 35 to 40 Texas and Oklahoma fire departments were called in to provide mutual aid in the resulting nine-hour firefight.
In response to the anger which followed, state Rep. Ken King authored HB 801, which passed during the 84th Texas Legislature. That bill placed new restrictions on TPWD’s prescribed-burn policy, requiring additional prior notification to the public, elected officials, and affected property owners, as well as purchase of a $2 million liability policy and indemnification of anyone who suffers damages up to $1 million.
Last winter, TPWD officials announced their intention to conduct prescribed burns, and set a three-month-long window during which they would be looking for weather conditions favorable to the operation. A dozen local landowners—some with lawyers in tow—protested the TPWD decision to Hemphill County commissioners, who already imposed a countywide burn ban due to dangerous drought and fire weather conditions.
Judge George Briant admitted that the commissioners had no authority over TPWD or its burn plan, and could take no action to block it. Wildlife biologist Jamie Baker defended the plan, saying it was the logical next step in a series of range-management techniques the department uses at Gene Howe.
The drought intensified, however, and TPWD’s operational window closed without a burn being conducted.
In the notification sent out to property owners last month, Baker wrote, “Prescribed burns are a management tool used to restore forest and prairie habitats that were periodically burned by natural fires. Prescribed burns also reduce the potential damage a wildfire could cause by reducing available fuels, such as dead trees, leaf litter, and other flammable vegetation on the landscape.”
Prescribed fires on WMAs are conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel and/ or their contracted agents who have undergone extensive fire training and meet national and state wildland firefighting and incident-management standards, Baker noted, adding that the WMA staff would still work with local fire- and emergency-management officials to plan and conduct the prescribed fire.
“Each prescribed-fire plan defines the local weather and other conditions under which a prescribed burn may be conducted, the personnel and equipment required, and fire-break locations,” Baker explained. “Most importantly, the fire plan prioritizes public and firefighter safety.”
Baker assured landowners that the plan reduces the risk of fire escaping onto adjacent properties and minimizes the effect of smoke in nearby residential and smoke-sensitive areas. It also establishes contingency measures to protect adjacent properties if the fire were to escape established boundaries. The prescribed burns are ignited in predetermined patterns that ensure the best measures for containment, he explained.
“Texas has a history of naturally occurring wildfires, making prescribed burns very important to maintaining habitat on WMAs,” Baker’s letter concluded. “Private landowners should consider implementing wildfire-mitigation efforts on their lands, as well, in order to preserve their property and way of life before a wildfire event starts.” The letter also included a map of the prescribed-fire area (shown above), which is located about 7.3 miles east of Canadian at 15412 FM 2266 (Lake Marvin Road).
F O R M O R E I N F O R M A T I O N :
To view the official prescribed burn plan for the Gene Howe WMA provided by Baker, click here.
Information on how to be prepared can be found on the TPWD website. If you have any questions, please contact Jamie Baker at 806.323.8642 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive text message notifications prior to the burn, text 81010 with this message: @W055.