-T. Parker Schuerman
Since 1996 T. Parker Schuerman has worked in prescribed fire for The Nature Conservancy in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Florida, and was a field biologist in Nebraska and Colorado. Today, he serves The Conservancy as a fire planner and ecologist for the Texas Program. Parker helps with stewardship, fire planning and implementation throughout Texas. Recently, he submitted his observations to our Wildfire Journal about the April-May 2012 Livermore Complex Wildfire which affected the Davis Mountains Preserve:
The Davis Mountains are in the Chihuahuan Desert. They rise above the surrounding arid grasslands like a cool green beacon. These mountains are the beautiful beginning of the basin and range “sky island” biogeography that stretches west into Arizona and southward almost to Mexico City.
This past April, I was in the Davis Mountains with other TNC staff, to support the suppression of a wildfire called the “Livermore Ranch Complex.” When I arrived on scene, the wildfire had already burned 10,000-acres on the western side of the Davis Mountains. The wildfire was ignited by two lightning strikes. These two ignition sources quickly grew into one larger combined wildfire complex on ranches in the grasslands west of the Davis Mountains.
Before my arrival, the wildfire had already jumped over the western mountain ridge and onto the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve. I saw fire move across the Preserve’s east and south facing slopes, then make impressive runs up the 8,300-foot slopes around Mt. Livermore, the largest mountain in the range.
Our Nature Conservancy staff provided logistical and advisory support to the combined federal and state leadership managing the wildfire - a “Type 1 Incident Management Team." Ten federal Hotshot Crews and several Texas Forest Service (TFS) Task Force, Engine and Dozer Crews were assigned to fight this wildfire. The Nature Conservancy of Texas provided housing and showers to support several of these State and Federal Crews. Conservancy staff cleared trees from roads and trails, set up water sources for engines and helicopters, and transferred information to the wildfire leadership team. We also stood ready as an additional resource for initial attack of the wildfire. Our local knowledge provided the wildfire leadership team with the strategic boundaries of wildfires that occurred in 2011. We also illustrated areas where we had reduced fuel through The Conservancy’s prescribed burns on the preserve in 2010. In the winter two years ago, I helped the Texas staff execute these controlled burns.
I first visited this isolated mountain range in February of 2010. I was assigned to a cadre of Nature Conservancy fire fighters gathered to train with our state and federal partners. The Texas Chapter hosted a “Fire Exchange” to increase the planning and fire implementation skills of fire fighters. As a part of this training, we increased the acres of controlled burns in this region of west Texas.
On a crisp winter day in 2010, as I approached the Davis Mountains from the east, these mountains seemed magically to rise out of an endless series of mesquite flats. My home, back in Maine, was under a blanket of snow, so I looked forward to the camaraderie and challenges created by executing safe, controlled burns in this new and amazing west Texas landscape. Our goal during the Fire Exchange was to plan and use prescribed fires to restore historic savanna-like conditions to stands of Ponderosa Pine, Southern White Pine and Oak-Juniper Woodlands. We also teamed with adjacent ranchers to rejuvenate desert grasslands.
During the Fire Exchange, we successfully completed over 3,000 acres of solid, ecologically-inspired fire. When the training ended, I looked back over my shoulder at the Davis Mountains with a feeling of satisfaction. I had no idea when I would be back.
I couldn’t have predicted my return in 2012, as part of the Texas fire team’s staff, I arrived to help suppress the Livermore Ranch Complex wildfire. The controlled burns we did back in 2010 were now reflected on the 2012 wildfire maps. Shown as areas of reduced fuel, if the current wildfire advanced into these previously burned areas, the fire would lose its intensity and severity. The wildfire would then move low and slow. Fire that burns like this is easy to catch and control.
At the Livermore Ranch Complex, Conservancy staff cleared and provided access and egress to the preserve’s roads and trails. Hot Shot Crews used these avenues to approach the wildfire on steep mountain slopes. The crews worked in tandem with fire retardant air drops from Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs). These planes put down lines of retardant through the forest. Retardant is a “sludge or slime” that slows the advance of the wildfire and “cools down” the edge of the fire. A cool edge allows hand crews to safely approach the flaming front and “get at it”. Larger air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service base in New Mexico also flew in to drop fire retardant.
For the most part, the purpose of this daily “air show” was to ensure the protection of 150 permanent homes. These homes were scattered in the foothills of Mt. Livermore in the Davis Mountain Resort. This community is The Nature Conservancy’s neighbor, directly to the south and east of our preserve boundary.
The superlative air attack, with the help of calm winds and the persistence of the Hot Shot and the Texas Fire Suppression Crews, combined to pinch and contain the Livermore Ranch Complex Wildfire into a southeastern bowl above the Davis Mountain Resort. This is where the wildfire was stopped after consuming over 24,117 of grasslands and forest.
Suppressing this wildfire was an act of neighborly stewardship. The Davis Mountains and Marfa Grasslands to the south are part of a huge landscape that has experienced fire in every form and in every season across millennia. Sometimes in landscapes like this, it is hard to understand that we are the visitor, the latest tribe of humanity to appreciate the vistas, the grasses that sustain wildlife and livestock, and the perennial and life-sustaining surface flows of water across the desert landscape.
As ecologists it is our job to tell the story of land and how the plants and animals evolved in tandem with fire. As fire fighters and citizens, it is our duty to learn to live with fire and protect ourselves and our communities.
Put more simply, to paraphrase the great Teddy Roosevelt, a conservation ethic is one where humans never take more from the earth than they can put back and keep in balance. This is a Texas rancher’s ideal, and perhaps, it is also an abiding American virtue.
Truly, that is the central message of fire on the landscape; we are all not a permanent part of the web of life, only an evolving part of its current tapestry. The Ponderosa Pines, Southwestern White Pines, and juniper-oak savannas will continue to rebound and re-establish themselves in the micro-climates of the canyons and bowls of the Davis Mountain Preserve. Nature has the Phoenix-like ability to rebound -- we must learn from that example.