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March 2008

Release Date: March 6, 2008

The West Texas Fire Dilemma

Several factors, including last year’s above average rainfall, played major roles in the recent grass fires that blazed across West Texas leaving hundreds of thousands of acres torched and destroying homes, fencing and livestock.

While the obvious culprits are the weather conditions, including warm temperatures, low humidity levels and high winds, some of the underlying causes are more complicated, says Angelo State University range management professor Dr. Cody Scott. One of those factors is simply who owns an increasing amount of the area’s ranchland.

“We are seeing more and more property sold to non-traditional landowners,” Scott said. “Individuals are buying property strictly for recreational purposes, so there is not any livestock on it. On a lot of these properties we are seeing increased grass production, not only because of rainfall during the growing season, but also because of changes in ownership.”

However, those landowners do not shoulder all the blame. Changes in the ranching industry have also added to the danger of grass fires.

“Ten years ago, most of the ranches in this area would run cattle, sheep and goats,” Scott said. “Because of volatility in the sheep market, loss of the wool and mohair incentive and predator problems, a lot of the ranchers no longer run sheep and goats. So, where at one time they were running three species of livestock that were out there eating forage and grass, now they are running just one.”

Even some practices meant to benefit ranchers, like brush control and using grass cover to protect the soil surface, have actually produced more fire hazards.

“A lot of work has been done in places to decrease the amount of woody plant cover,” Scott said. “The end result is we have increased the amount of grass cover, which increases water filtration, cuts down erosion and improves water quality. We see less sediment in our rivers, streams and lake basins as well. All that is good stuff, but the grass cover is also more fuel for a fire.”

Putting more livestock on existing ranchland would help eliminate some of the excess grass cover. But, that practice comes with its own set of difficulties.

“Ranchers still have to maintain stocking rates below a certain level,” Scott said, “so they have some forage left at the end of the growing season in case it doesn’t rain and so they have some feed for their livestock the following year or until the next rain comes.”

Also, many area landowners live elsewhere and don’t want to run livestock on their property or lease the property to others who would.

Another option to curb the threat of wildfires is prescribed burning, but many West Texas counties are currently under burn bans. Those regulations and a disaster proclamation issued by Texas Governor Rick Perry severely limit the opportunities for outdoor burning, which has frustrated many of the state’s agriculture professionals.

“The reason the burn bans are in place is good,” Scott said. “Most individuals, including Natural Resource Conservation Service workers, extension personnel and university personnel, are not going to burn under wildfire conditions. We are going to burn when there is higher humidity, less wind speed and cooler temperatures, so that it is safer.”

“If those regulations could be changed,” he added, “we could free up more opportunities for prescribed burning. We could go in and burn off properties that don’t have livestock or where we have some prickly pear problems. That could serve as a barrier for that particular area if a wildfire came across.”

One way around the burn bans is to become a certified prescribed burner. The Academy for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University has a certification program. However, certification requires carrying liability insurance and that has significantly curtailed interest in the program. Statewide there are still very few certified burners.

Ironically, some landowners had actually set aside pastures to burn this year, but now cannot because of current burn bans.

“They didn’t graze them on purpose,” Scott said. “So, they have lots of grass and now the owners can’t burn them. Under the right conditions, you could have a catastrophic wildfire.”

This week’s rains and cooler temperatures have encouraged several counties, including Tom Green, to rescind their burn bans. But, the rainfall may also bring an end to the prescribed burning season because of too much green grass. Also, while the rain helps, with warmer and windy spring days sure to return, the ongoing threat of wildfires remains throughout West Texas and much of the rest of the state as well.