Habitat & Conservation  |  03/13/2024

The Heart of The Habitat Organization is with the Southern Great Plains 


PF & QF look to the future of wildfire mitigation, for both people and wildlife 

By Casey Sill

As the wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma move closer to containment, "The Habitat Organization” would like to extend our sincere condolences to all those affected by these catastrophic events. Our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of each state — who’ve lost both lives and livelihoods during these fires — as well as with the fire fighters, volunteers and donors who have given their time to assist those in need.  

The flames kicked up across the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles in late February and have since burned over one million acres. The largest of those is the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which killed two people and at least 3,600 cattle in Texas. That fire was nearly 90 percent contained as of Monday morning, according to the Washington Post.  

These recent events are a stark reminder of nature’s destructive power, but have also highlighted the importance of preventative fire management. The American Great Plains are intimately connected to fire — the landscape is built to burn, and the ground will recover much faster than the industry and agriculture that were destroyed alongside it.  

This was not the first massive wildfire to tear through this area of the country, and it most certainly won’t be the last. But preventing destruction on this scale relies heavily on fighting fire with fire — in the form of prescribed burns.  

The benefits of prescribed burns are twofold. First, the process reduces the fuel load of an area. The more under-control dry grasses and tree cover are, the less chance a wildfire gets out of hand. Second, recently burned buffer strips and pastures create a barrier against wildfire. The results of these buffer strips in the face of an oncoming fire can be profound, as was the case in Borger, Texas this spring.  

The city of around 12,000 residents was directly in the path of the Windy Deuce Fire in late February, but the flames skirted around the town when it ran up against a recently burned strip of land just south of the city.  

“That strip of ground, which was only about 50-yards wide and seven miles long, no doubt saved either part or all of that town from being burned,” said Thomas Janke, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Texas state coordinator. “We’ve seen the destruction these fires can cause firsthand in other areas this spring, so to have an example of a prescribed burn directly preventing serious damage is a great reminder of what an effective tool it can be.”  

The removal of red cedar trees is another key component to fire prevention, particularly further to the north in Oklahoma. One of the most fire prone areas of the country, Oklahoma’s landscape features dry conditions and an abundance of fuel sources spurred on by red cedar encroachment — the combination of which can lead to devastating fires. 

“We’ve seen it out here all too many times,” said Tanner Swank, a Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever coordinating wildlife biologist in Oklahoma. “With the big fires as of late, starting in 2016 with the Anderson Creek fire, people see how volatile those cedar trees are. They’re basically incendiary bombs dotting an area where fires are already hard to fight.” 

In addition to being a fuel source, cedars also consume massive amounts of water, which can worsen drought conditions in an already dry region. Just one acre of eastern red cedars can consume as much as 55,000 gallons of water per year from the surrounding area, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

While Texas and Oklahoma will undoubtedly deal with more fires like these in years to come, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever team members will continue to help landowners and local communities with prevention measures. The Habitat Organization is a nationwide leader in the application of prescribed fire, with a proven track record across large portions of the Midwest. The recent events in Texas and Oklahoma have galvanized our efforts further to the south, and the organization will work tirelessly in these areas to both recover from and prevent wildfire in the future.  

“Prescribed fire is the best tool we’ve got for preventing these kinds of tragedies, and we’d like to bring more of the fire culture that’s been so successful in places like Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas to this area,” said Dustin McNabb, a Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever regional representative in Texas. “If we can do that, we can help reduce the opportunity for wildfires of this magnitude, ensure we’re prepared to deal with them in the future and simultaneously create meaningful benefits for wildlife and ranchers.” 

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Casey Sill is the senior public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at csill@pheasantsforever.org