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Fire is an Ecological Tool

Conservation, General

Fire is an Ecological Tool

By Ben Eldredge, Director of Conservation

In 1998 I had the pleasure of studying in Australia, learning about the continent’s flora, fauna, and ecology.  It was there in the Australian Outback that I conducted my first prescribed burn. 

As an Australian rancher led our small group of students through a grove of eucalyptus trees, he held out a box of strike-anywhere matches, instructed us to light them, and then toss them in the grass. Within minutes huge trees were engulfed in flames as the fire proceeded up a nearby hill, leaving a charred and smoldering landscape as the fire disappeared over a ridge and out of sight. 

The landowner assured us that the fire would burn itself out somewhere on his ranch and that any neighboring landowners wouldn’t mind if it happened to cross onto their property.

The fire was simply a part of the region’s ecology, and therefore its ranching culture understood its role and value. 

Wildfire is fundamental to ecological health in many regions, including our own.  As naturalist Ferdinand Von Roemer recounted in 1849, “A section of … cedar forest was destroyed by a forest fire during my stay in New Braunfels.” 

While it’s tempting to question how fire destroying a forest is a good thing, it’s also important to understand that the Texas Hill Country would be one large forest without fire rather than a mosaic of woodlands and grasslands.  These wildfires enable native grasses to establish in burned areas and reduce woody vegetation that encroaches on grasslands. 

The many fire-adapted plants in our region are also evidence of the ecological influence of fire in our area.  These “prophetic plants” utilize strategies to recover rapidly from fire, including root sprouting and producing seeds that germinate in response to fire.  Flameleaf sumac, named for its beautiful fall colors, exhibits both properties and often emerges after brush piles are burned.  

Because of these ecological characteristics, prescribed fire has become an essential tool utilized by many landowners in our region.  Some ranchers use fire simply to keep ash juniper cedar from taking over their fields and grazing lands.  Wildlife managers utilize fire to stimulate the landscape and maintain the health of prairies. 

However, prescribed burning in the Hill Country is nothing like what I first experienced in Australia.

We don’t have 100,000-acre ranches, and our neighbors don’t tend to take kindly to having their land torched by rogue fire.  Therefore, we conduct fires with a crew that is well equipped with fire suppression equipment, ignite fires only when the weather is conducive to a safe burn, and undertake many preparations to ensure that fire doesn’t escape our target area.

Undertaking a prescribed burn can seem daunting at first, and many landowners are hesitant to burn without proper training and on-the-ground experience.   This is why the Cibolo Center for Conservation hosts an annual Prescribed Fire workshop, covering all aspects of fire ecology, planning for a prescribed burn, and providing hands-on experience laying fire on the land. 

This year’s workshop virtually takes place on Thursday, December 2nd, from 1-5 pm, featuring presentations by local ecologist Rufus Stephens, TPWD regional fire coordinator Wesley Evans, and award-winning rancher Dusty Bruns and other landowners with extensive experience prescribing fire.  Part 2 of this workshop will take place on Saturday, December 4th, at the Cibolo Nature Center, during which attendees will gain hands-on experience by participating in a prescribed burn. 

Registration for the workshop and information about the live demonstration is available on