Texas Fire Manager
Larry Belles is a master at wielding the most powerful conservation tool in the world: fire. The Nature Conservancy of Texas’ fire manager draws on more than three decades of experience working in some of the most inspiring landscapes in the United States—Mount Shasta, Sequoia National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida’s Everglades, home to the National Park Service’s largest prescribed fire program in the country.
After a long and successful career with the National Park Service, Larry hung up his drip torch and hard hat in 2004. Less than two weeks later, he was drawn out of retirement by the opportunity to lead fire operations for the Texas chapter, which maintains one of the most successful prescribed fire programs in the country.
Nearly five years later, it’s clear Larry wasn’t ready for retirement.
“There’s an adrenaline rush that you get with doing fire suppression,” he says with a laugh. “I enjoyed that part.”
Larry’s team has proven so effective it won the Conservancy’s outstanding conservation achievement award at a recent all-staff gathering.
“The Texas Fire Team under Larry Belles' leadership has reached heights we could have only dreamed about a few years ago,” said Jim Bergan, science and stewardship director for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. “He understands what it takes to put ‘big fire’ on the ground, safely, effectively and responsibly.”
A California native, Larry graduated from California State University in Sacramento with a degree in environmental resources. He specialized in park management and never intended to get into the fire end of resource management, but tried it out as a seasonal job and found that it suited him.
“It’s one of those resource management activities where you immediately see the results of your efforts,” he says. “It’s very rare to get instant gratification in this field; usually it’s change over time. Not so with fire—you immediately see the results of your efforts.”
The challenge for fire managers like Larry is as enormous as the need, with decades of fire suppression over vast portions of the country having altered natural fire regimes and inadvertently created more destructive, faster-spreading wildfires.
For centuries, tribal people and periodic lightning fires kept the grasslands clear for wildlife with regular burns, but that practice went by the wayside with European settlement.
“The result is that we’ve got an altered environment out there,” he says. “Brush is coming in where it isn’t supposed to be, hardwoods are replacing pine trees and healthy, balanced diversity in the understory is lost.”
Larry strives for his team to meet—if not exceed—the fire standards of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Under Larry’s leadership, the Texas fire team successfully burned more than 20,000 acres in 2009, working on both Conservancy properties and privately-owned lands.
Besides managing prescribed burns on all the Conservancy preserves, the team has been working hard to help landowners understand the need for managed burns on their property.
“We’re hoping to develop a fire culture with these folks. We can be a catalyst, and participation from landowners is essential to large-scale success,” he says.
Larry and his team share resources and provide both support and assistance to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Conservancy staff assist on burns with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. In addition, team members are frequently called upon to assist in battling wildfires around the state. Last year alone, 17 fire team members pitched in to battle a total of eight such fires.
One of the most gratifying aspects Larry’s work is watching his team’s fires become the catalyst for the comeback of vanishing species, such as the Chapman’s orchid and Texas trailing phlox that recently reappeared following prescribed fires at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary near the Big Thicket.
“That kind of stuff is just way cool,” he says, “knowing you’ve had an effect to bring back something that had vanished from the landscape.”
Texas Fire Manager