Officials wait for ideal weather before controlled burn in Jones State Forest
Officials at Jones State Forest are watching the weather as they prepare for what would be the first prescribed burn in the forest in nearly two years.
The burn-which will actually be a series of small fires-has been pushed back until at least Jan. 18 and possibly later as crews wait for just the right weather to start the prescribed, or controlled burns, according to the manager of the forest, John Warner. Officials had hoped to start the fires by Jan. 11.
Intentionally setting fire to wooded areas is way to manage the growth of forests in the hopes of preventing larger and potentially devastating fires, Warner said. A veteran forester, Warner holds the official title of Urban District Forester and has worked in forestry for nearly 30 years.
“We have had some catastrophic fires when the conditions are right,” Warner said, referring to fires in other areas, including wildfires that have devastated wide swaths of California. “Our goal it to protect the forest and its resources and surrounding areas.”
BURNS ARE ‘SCIENCE-BASED’
The Texas A&M Forest Service, which owns and operates the forest, describes prescribed burns as “a recognized, science-based management tool for the improvement of wildlife habitat and rangelands for livestock.”
The service points out that historically the Texas landscape had been maintained by “natural fires” that could have been sparked by lightning and burned without any attempt to douse them. But that was before housing and commercial developments sprouted up in the state’s pine forests and across prairies. Those fires kept forests healthy by returning nutrients to the soil and promoting healthier and greater amounts of foliage. Natural blazes and the upcoming Jones State Forest burn also help to restore the habitat of endangered species, which is especially important at the forest because the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker makes it home in the preserve’s towering pine trees.
But with the urbanization of what was once undeveloped land officials no longer allow nature to take its course by letting fires burn. Without nature taking its course trees become overcrowded, while dead trees and brush build up that provide a volatile fuel for fires that have the potential to expand into devastating wildfires.
WINDS EXPECTED TO BLOW SMOKE AWAY
To prevent damaging fires, forestry managers deliberately ignite the prescribed burns. But before they do, their “burn plans” have to consider a number of factors, including the expected temperature, humidity, moisture of the vegetation, as well as how strong local winds will be and the direction they’re expected to be blowing. The winds determine how and where the smoke will be disbursed.
“We want days that the smoke will go up in a column and mix with the transport winds,” Warner said. “It’s [the smoke] going to lift and go away.”
When weather conditions are just right, crews will spark the first of what could be several fires. The fires would be ignited around 10 a.m., then allowed to burn until around 3:30 p.m. when firefighters monitoring the blaze will get to work putting the fires out. Some of the fires could continue to burn into the evening as logs and stumps smolder, while fire crews continue to mop up in the area. The prescribed burns will cover about 10 to 30 acres a day, with about 200 acres in the 1,722-acre preserved being eventually being burned.
FOREST TO REMAIN OPEN, BURN AREAS RESTRICTED
On days the fires are burning, the forest will remain open but access to the burn areas will be restricted. Smoke is not expected to greatly reduce visibility or have an impact on traffic. Warner and other Texas A&M Forest Service officials have been notifying surrounding city and fire officials, as well as property managers to let them know about the burns.
Because every burn day has to have just the right combination of factors, including temperatures, wind strength and direction, there’s no specific deadline to wrap up the burning process. But the burn period is expected to cover a couple of weeks and could extend into February.
“The stars have to be aligned,” Warner said.