I drove into central Texas and back this week, visiting friends. And me being me, I had one eye on the road and the other evaluating pasture conditions, looking for water, watching to see where the soil changed from brown to tan to red, and so on. Once I got past Claude, I started twitching. The pastures needed a good burn.
Those of you familiar with my blog know that grass fire and range fires are not something normal people (and even I) really want. In fact, as I drove back north, I spotted two plumes of grass smoke, both well south of the highway, and started wondering if they were controlled burns (not flippin’ likely with the wind, but the first one might have been, since that area had plenty of rain recently). But the fire load was soooooo high, and the mesquite really out of control. A few places had been grubbed and (probably) sprayed, but other areas? Ick.
There wasn’t room to swing a cat because of all the mesquite. It has uses, in moderation, and can be very helpful in a drought, in moderation. But the only things that control it are fire, hard-core herbicides, and heavy equipment with grubbing attachments.
Or for smaller jobs:
Regular fires kept the mesquite in check as well as burning off cedar and getting rid of a lot of dead grass and forb stems. It returned nutrients to the soil. In the eastern prairies, pyrophillic species developed that needed periodic fires to thrive. In the mid and short-grass plains, fire was less of a necessity, although it did keep mesquite and brush confined to a smaller, wetter area. Regular fires reduce the total “fire load,” the amount of burnable material present and ready to ignite. A low fire load produced smaller, slightly cooler fires that were less likely to run a hundred miles at a go with ten-foot high flames. And no, I’m not exaggerating. One infamous blaze started in southwest Kansas, probably near modern Garden City, and ran all the way to the Canadian River until a blizzard and the river stopped it. Another, in 1904, began in eastern New Mexico and ran east into Texas for 60-70 miles, with a flame front at times 10 miles north to south. You don’t want that sort of fire (also called 2006).
So when I see large reaches full of very dry dead grass or exceedingly thick mesquite, I get twitchy. It needs a burn, a controlled, supervised, managed application of fire, to reset the system and get things growing again, or to open the land for the grasses and smaller forbs to return. But if it does ignite, it can get so out of control so fast all you can do is try to get out of the way.
One solution, expensive of course, is to grub out an area of mesquite, pile the dead plants, let them dry, and burn each pile one at a time, ready to douse the pile if anything tries to jump.
Grasses are a bit less exciting, but 10′ flames do get people’s attention, and yucca stumps will smoulder for days after being “doused.” And if flames start to run, as happened in Los Alamos NM a few years ago when someone didn’t do their homework about weather conditions, you are left with smoking black pasture, dead livestock, and sometimes dead people (2006). Fire is fire in some ways, be it forest or grass.
But part of me really, really wants all that stuff cleaned out so the native grasses can come back well. And so we’re less likely to have national news pictures of flames leaping a major divided highway (or Interstate) and devouring everything in front of them.