Local officials talk importance of ranch wildfire program

Three grass fires scorched thousands of acres in Parker County in January 2018, forcing the closure of Interstates 20 and 30 and the evacuation of elementary schools and neighborhoods.

The Texas Ranch Wildfire Program was established by the Texas A&M Forest Service to combat loss to wildfires and Parker County Emergency Management Coordinator and Fire Marshal Sean Hughes said it’s something he wants to kick off in the county.

According to the forest service website, between 2005 and 2018 there were 85,661 wildfires in North Texas and the Panhandle, which resulted in 1,915 homes lost, 30 fatalities and 6.3 million acres burned.

“To combat such losses, Texas A&M Forest Service began development of a grassroots approach to community protection that involves ranchers, fire departments, state agencies, local governments and private sector,” according to the website. “Texas Ranch Wildfire Program will work with landowners to identify priority areas, points of contact, mapping of water sources, sensitive areas, fences, gates and other zones within the ranch to allow firefighters to make tactical decisions that reflect the landowners priorities.”

Parker County AgriLife Extension Agent Jay Kingston said the program is an opportunity for landowners to connect with local fire departments and state agencies to help identify landowner priorities during a fire emergency.

“This program was developed by the Texas A&M Forest Service to help strengthen community protection. If you have ever been a part of a wildland fire on your property, then you know the urgency, fear and confusion that it can create,” Kingston said. “By using this program, landowners can have provided emergency response agencies with critical information to save lives both human and livestock, protect homes and building structures and prevent further rangeland destruction.”

Hughes said it’s a great program and probably hasn’t been implemented in Parker County because there has been no one with his position for almost five years.

“We’re going to get together a public meeting to present this material and get more folks involved. It kind of fell through the cracks with not having a full time fire marshal and I think that’s the reason more people haven’t been involved in it,” Hughes said. “Anything we can do to reduce the wildfire risk in the county is just wonderful and a lot of people want to do something, they just don’t know what to do to help.”

Kingston brought up 2011 and the fires Texas experienced.

“We all should remember 2011 and the fire devastation we experienced across Texas. There were 12 homes reported lost in Parker County and 215 in Palo Pinto County in the PK Complex fire that year,” Kingston said. “Planning ahead can help mitigate those numbers in the future.”

Additionally, Parker County residents may remember a 1,000-acre grass fire that broke out last January shutting down Interstates 20 and 30 both directions in the eastern part of the county and Aledo ISD McCall and Walsh elementary schools. Another grass fire broke that same afternoon between Poolville and Springtown where evacuations were ordered between Old Agnes Road and Erwin Road, and from Erwin Road West to Zion Hill Road. A third grass fire started burning between Bankhead Highway and I-20 in Weatherford, near the Pythian Home that same day.

The Texas Ranch Wildfire Program cooperates with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“There are a number of things that a landowner can do around the home and in the pasture to help reduce the effects of a fire,” Kingston said. “We can provide educational information on strategic grazing, planning landscapes around homes and using prescribed burning as a rangeland management tool, to name a few.”

Hughes said this is a program he wants to get going in Parker County.

“It’s something we’re going to kick off. Especially with all the rain we’ve had, everything is growing and then it’s going to die-off, so this is something we want to get implemented before winter,” Hughes said.

Kingston said the process for the Texas Ranch Wildfire Program is fairly easy and landowners can visit tfsweb.tamu.edu/TRWP and follow the instructions on mapping out their properties and setting priorities during a fire emergency.