working on a prescribed burn.
Shawn Benedict working on a prescribed burn. © Kenny Braun

Stories in Texas

Into the Fire

When you think of a conservationist, odds are you don’t picture a collection of soot-faced men and women setting fire to acres of Texas prairie. But maybe you should.

Historically, fire has been an important natural resourceregular cycles of natural or manmade fires have typically kept forests and grasslands healthy by clearing away excessive brush and undergrowth to make way for new vegetation. But using fire in this way fell out of favor, leading to overgrown forests and grasslands.

Enter prescribed burning.

Unlike a wildfire, prescribed burns are intentional and target a specific parcel of land; they are expertly executed by crews certified by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the go-to organization for wildfire management programs and agencies. The Conservancy’s Texas fire program is overseen by State Fire Manager Larry Belles—it includes five full-time burn crew members and roughly 30 conservation and science staff who are certified to fight wildfires and participate in prescribed burns. Last February, several of these fire specialists, including certified burn boss John DeLeon, showed me that a successful fire involves much more than lighting a match.

Surveying the Fuel

I met DeLeon and the burn crew about two hours south of Austin, in the small, historic town of Goliad. Acting as my chaperone and fire-speak translator was Dan Snodgrass, associate director of land conservation for the Conservancy. The plan was to accompany the crew as they burned about 400 acres of Crow Ranch, but by the time we’d jumped out of the truck and shook hands with the team, there was a strong air of apprehension. The weather was not being cooperative.

“There are a lot of things to consider with the weather. If the humidity is too high, that means there’s too much moisture in the air—you won’t get a good burn that way,” Snodgrass explained. “And if it’s too cloudy, there’s nowhere for the smoke to go. It gets trapped low to the ground and then you have to worry about smoking out the town or cars driving down the highway.”

The grass—or fuel—immediately underfoot was also scrubby and flat, which wasn’t exactly what DeLeon was expecting. “Something like this won’t burn well—and you see these empty patches? There’s just not much.”

The mood changed when a quick tour of the property revealed thicker, healthier grasslands across the remaining acreage; and after a bit of patience, the weather took a turn for the better. It was time to burn.

Where There’s Smoke

Just prior to the burn, I watched as the nine crew members walked through their personal rituals: strapping on gear, gobbling down a quick lunch, sizing up the property for any impediments to success. The group then gathered to discuss goals for the day, the size and configuration of the burn unit (fire-speak for the acreage they’re focused on), and, most exciting to me, assignments for the day.

Each person was given a specific responsibility, which ensures accountability and lays down a protocol for any emergencies that arise. There’s the burn boss, who oversees all the team and its tools; the ignition boss, who—armed with a driptorch—lays down various lines of fire; and the holding boss, who monitors the fire so that it doesn’t “jump the black,” a line of charred earth about 30 feet wide created to stop the fire from spreading past a certain point.

As the group dispersed to take their positions, I passed ignition boss Adam Hickl, who’s been burning full-time with the Conservancy since 2012. “Are you ready to work?” I asked jokingly.

He grinned back at me, mounting his all-terrain vehicle and securing his driptorch. “I like burning, Bronwen. It’s what I do.”

Scorched Earth

By car and on foot, Dan and I explored the entire property, watching as section by section went up in flames. Watching liquid fire pour out of the spout of a driptorch is, in a word, hypnotic. Watching two guys crisscross 400 acres on ATVs, creating glowing lines of fire that build and merge to form plumes of smoke so thick and wide that they temporarily block out the sun…? That’s incredible. In a little under three hours, the entire burn unit was nothing but charred black earth, resembling some sort of post-apocalyptic world.

But from this scorched landscape, nature will reemerge stronger and healthier In as little as 30 days, the field—which at one point resembled a field of wheat swaying in the breeze—will be lush and green. And the renewal of this 400-acre tract is important to the entire region. Crow Ranch is part of the larger, 500,000-acre Refugio-Goliad area, which contains one of the largest and highest-quality expanses of coastal tallgrass prairie in Texas. It’s also home to some of the oldest cattle ranches in the state.

Our work with area landowners to reintroduce fire to the landscape helps support the agricultural industry, maintain plant and animal diversity and ensure water quality in local lakes, rivers and streams. The fire experts I met that day? They are warriors for nature.

Story by Conservation Writer Bronwen Butler