A drip-torch ignited the first flame on a long-delayed prescribed burn at the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Tuesday morning.
The burn was conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and its contractor—Archie Stone of Fritch-based Global Frontline Solutions Land and Fire Management—with little incident. The burn team was comprised of a firing boss, burn boss, nearly two dozen firefighters and a helicopter pilot. They were equipped with fire engines and several UTV’s with either drip fuel carriers or pumps.
The project objective was to reduce fuel loads in the area, to mitigate wildfire danger and to invigorate the growth of native grassland, providing for better range management and wildlife habitat. While public and firefighter safety were prioritized in their burn plan, the Department also stressed a heightened awareness of the negative public and political perception of prescribed fires among landowners in the area.
Given the final greenlight to proceed Tuesday morning, the crew assembled for a 10 am briefing in the South Williams Pasture of the Gene Howe WMA. The test fire was lit around 10:30 am, in the northeast corner of the burn project. Light southerly winds, ranging from 10-15 mph, accelerated to 15-20 by noon, with gusts up to 23 mph.
Drip torches were used to set a line of spot fires extending north and east from the corner of the box. The center was filled in gradually in expanding arcs, spreading out from the corner. Working with the wind, the team used back burns to minimize the height and heat of the flames.
The process continued throughout the day. Around 5:30 pm, the burn area was black all around the perimeter, and eating itself up in the interior. The team remained on site monitoring the fire and performing mop-up into the evening.
Fire Program Leader Chris Schenck unable to be present Tuesday morning, having been called to attend the memorial service for a firefighter killed in a helicopter crash. Monitoring the fire in his place was Regional Fire Coordinator Bobby Schat, of Lubbock.
Schat reported that five small spot fires occurred just beyond the perimeter of the burn—three to the east, just across the dirt road; one to the north, on the WMA itself; and one on land just beyond the northwestern corner of the area on land owned by Salem Abraham. All were quickly picked up and doused, with support from the helicopter dropping water overhead.
“Overall, I think the day went well,” said Schenck, “given that we had winds sooner and higher than were forecast.”
Schenck said he was acutely aware of “intense sentiment” from landowners along Lake Marvin Road. That sentiment resulted from a prescribed burn conducted just over ten years ago on the Gene Howe WMA, that escaped control and burned 5,000 acres of land, threatening homes, wildlife and cattle in the area, and destroying valuable rangeland needed for grazing.
The firefight that ensued eventually involved 35 to 40 Texas and Oklahoma fire departments, who were called in to provide mutual aid in the resulting nine-hour firefight.
In response to the anger that followed, state Rep. Ken King authored legislation that placed new restrictions on TPWD’s prescribed-burn policy, requiring additional notification to the public, elected officials and affected property owners, as well as additional liability insurance, and indemnification of anyone suffering damage.
TPWD officials have attempted several times since then to conduct prescribed burns in the area. Landowners responded with protests and threats of lawsuits. Dangerous drought and fire weather conditions led to delays, and optimum burn windows closed.
In December 2018, TPWD announced it had opened a new three-month prescribed burn window, but that effort failed when law enforcement officials cited their concerns that it might jeopardize any remaining evidence related to Thomas Brown’s death. An extensive grid search of the area near Lake Marvin where Brown’s remains were found—over two years after his disappearance—was conducted in February by the Texas attorney general’s criminal investigations division.
Last month, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gave public notification that it had moved its window for the prescribed burn to the period between April 1 and June 30, and by late Monday evening, the news that a burn would be conducted Tuesday morning began to circulate.
At the end of a long day, Schenck reported a successful burn. He was even encouraged to learn that one local landowner had approached Schat to ask if technical guidance would be available to him in the use of prescribed fire for land management, and was assured it would be.
“I feel we got the results we had always hoped for,” Schenck said. “While the burn didn’t go exactly as expected, our contingency plans were effective and we were able to accomplish our objectives.”
Schenck promised that the phoenix would rise from the fire’s ashes this spring at the Gene Howe WMA.