Burn bans and prescribed fires in Texas

Above: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel who had been mobilized to conduct prescribed fires at the Matador Wildlife Management Area (map) reconfigured as a Strike Team of Type 6 engines after a series of very large wildfires broke out in the Texas panhandle. Photo by TPWD. 

On March 12 we wrote about the two Borger Fire Department firefighters who suffered burn injuries while working on a prescribed fire in the panhandle of Texas. One was seriously injured and the other was treated at a hospital and released.

Chris M. Schenck, the Statewide Fire Program Leader in the Wildlife Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department contacted us to clarify information about prescribed fire and burn bans in the state.

Here is a glossary of the acronyms used:

  • Rx: prescribed (fire)
  • TPWD: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
  • CIPBM: Certified Insured Prescribed Burn Managers
  • NWCG: National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • TCEQ: Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ
  • NPS: National Park Service
  • DOD: Department of Defense

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By Chris M. Schenck

“Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) stood down our Rx Fire plans last week, though we were in prescription and had all contingency resources on location.  In fact we stood in the gap for  already committed Texas Forest Service resources.

Your comment:

“There was a burn ban in effect in Donley County but Texas law exempts prescribed fires from burn bans.”

Is correct, but may be a little simplified.  Here is link to the actual Texas State Statute.

Section D sec 352.081 (f.) [1.] & [2.] provide a little  clarification on Burn Bans and Rx Burning.

Essentially, only Certified Insured Prescribed Burn Managers (CIPBM) and Prescribed Burn Associations  may burn during a burn ban.

The State recognizes NWCG Burn Bosses as the equivalent of CIPBM as well.  Most of the time in my agency we are coordinating with the County Court of Commissioners  for a long time prior to burning.

State burning laws in Texas as in other states are fairly complex and a little tricky to follow.  Ray Hinnant a long CIPBM instructor wrote an article that is pretty helpful in understanding the rules.

In fact one of the first laws in  the Republic of Texas  shortly after 1845 prohibited “the burning of grass”.  This is still  essentially the case, then they go on to make exceptions.  Here is a link to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulations.

We have a very fragile balance in prescribed burning here in Texas as we are a 98% private lands state.

The events of last week often set back programs, public perception and spawn legislation.

TPWD is the third largest land manager behind (your former employer) NPS and the DOD. Burning on public lands is very significant  for habitat restoration and resiliency.

We have a great opportunity in Texas to “Rekindle the Fire Culture” and get more appropriate and responsible Rx Fire on the land.

TPWD Wildlife Division, has the privilege of providing Technical Guidance to Land Owners for Rx Fire and other land management activities.  Here is a link to our fire page.”

Two firefighters injured on prescribed fire in Texas

Borger Fire Department TexasTwo firefighters suffered burn injuries March 9 while working on a prescribed fire in the panhandle of Texas and were airlifted to a hospital. The Borger Fire Department  (map) has confirmed that two of their personnel, fire fighter Clay Lozier and fire chief Bob Watson, were injured transported to Lubbock for treatment.

According to Amarillo.com:

Borger Fire Chief Bob Watson remains in serious condition Saturday at the UMC Timothy J. Harnar Burn Center in Lubbock, according to BFD Lieutenant Stacy Nolen, and Borger firefighter Clay Lozier, who was injured in the same incident, has since been released from the burn unit.

News Channel 10 reports that the prescribed fire on the JA Ranch in Donley County was going well until a juniper tree torched, causing a spot fire. The firefighters almost had that contained when a fire whirl “threw fire 30 yards in every direction”, ranch owner Andrew Bivins said.

There was a burn ban in effect in Donley County but Texas law exempts prescribed fires from burn bans.

Smoke from controlled burn causes two accidents on Kansas highway

Osage smoke highway accident controlled burn
Scene of two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas, February 18. The photo was taken after visibility had improved somewhat. Photo courtesy of Kansas State Firefighters Association.

Smoke from a controlled burn on February 18 caused two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas two miles east of the Osage-Lyon county line. The series of accidents began when a truck was hit from behind when it slowed as it entered the smoke and the vehicle in front of it also slowed down.

The second accident happened when other vehicles stopped in the smoke to help those in the first accident. One driver was parked partially in the roadway when she was hit by another vehicle which then kept moving and hit two pedestrians who were helping one of the drivers in the first accident. After injuring the pedestrians the vehicle then hit another car.

The Osage County Sheriff’s Office that provided the above information reported that three people were transported to hospitals and five vehicles were damaged.

Dan Romine, Chief of Osage County Fire District #2, said the smoke across the highway was a lot worse than shown in the photo above when his fire department first arrived on scene.

Two reports released on the same day about the escaped prescribed fire near Carson City, NV

Above: Map of the Little Valley Fire at 9:23 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016.

On February 15 two reports were released about the prescribed fire that escaped, burned 2,291 acres, and destroyed 23 homes northwest of Carson City, Nevada on October 14, 2016. The first report about what became the Little Valley Fire included the results of a months-long independent investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal (RGJ). The other, released a few hours later, was the product of the official investigation requested by the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF), the agency responsible for conducting the prescribed fire.

Hours before the fire escaped, all eleven firefighters that had been mopping up the prescribed fire left the project and returned to their stations between 1:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on October 13, 2016. During that day there were a number of smokes that received the attention of the firefighters. During the last two hours before the seven-person helitack crew departed they noticed the wind increasing — trees were blowing down and branches were falling.

The RGJ reported on the reason the firefighters were ordered to leave the burn site.

Gene Phillips, NDF forest health specialist and burn boss for the Little Valley Burn, made the decision to pull crews from the burn site after discussing the high wind forecasts for the evening with a burn boss trainee, according to the review.

The decision not to staff the site on the evening of Oct. 13 was made, according to NDF, “based on the limited amount of heat near the control lines, success of the current mop-up effort, and the risk to firefighters working in timber during high winds.”

escaped fire map
From the NIMO report.

At 5:38 p.m. the Little Valley weather station recorded sustained winds out of the west at 15 mph with a maximum gust of 39 mph. By 12:38 a.m. on October 14, about the time the fire escaped, the wind was at 19 mph with gusts up to 87 mph. The relative humidity was 32 percent.

A Red Flag Warning for gusty winds and low humidity was in effect from the morning of October 11 through 5 p.m. on October 14. Strong winds persisted until mid-day on October 17.

The NIMO team concluded that the fire escaped when embers from a burning stump hole were blown 34 feet and crossed the fireline at a corner, or “dog leg” in the fire perimeter.

According to the RGJ there was confusion in initially responding to the fire after it escaped at around 12:38 a.m. on October 14:

Response to the fire was delayed, affecting how fast it could be contained: A call at 1:23 a.m. about smoke at the burn site was later dismissed as “unfounded,” causing a TMFPD [Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District] fire engine to return to the station three minutes after it left. After a second call about smoke at the burn site, it took TMFPD more than an hour to get to the site after crews were dispatched, according to 911 transcripts.

The NDF’s report was written by the U.S. Forest Service’s Phoenix National Incident Management Organization (NIMO), a team that usually manages fires and other incidents that are often of longer duration than a typical wildfire. The team was supplemented with a Fire Behavior Analyst, a GIS/Fire Behavior Analyst, a Public Information Officer, a Fire Investigator, and others for a total of 10 personnel that were listed in the report.

Prescribed fire in the Everglades

Prescribed fire at Everglades National Park HQ

I have conducted prescribed fires near structures, but not THIS close.