A Sign of the Season

At first glance, a storm appears to be rising behind this egret at the edge of Big Slough in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. In fact, the darkened skies were caused by smoke; given the pure blue skies in every other direction, the smoke was a clear sign of a prescribed burn taking place on refuge land.

The use of fire as a management tool benefits the land in a number of ways. It reduces competition between weedy and native species, allowing native plants to thrive; it returns nutrients to the soil, and improves wildlife habitat.

Many native grasses and wildflowers have such deep root systems they’re unaffected by fast-moving fires, and most animals and birds are able to flee. Burns are planned to minimize the threat to mating or nesting birds, and burn sites often are interspersed with plots that provide refuge for wildlife. Due to the fast-moving nature of such fires, animals such as mice, snakes, and lizards can burrow underground to escape.

For every burn, temperature, humidity levels, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, rain chances, and other factors are taken into account. Even the movement of smoke is important; planning always involves any communities that might be affected. (For a sense of the complexity involved with prescribed burns, this article from the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife is instructive. For a sample of a Texas Parks & Wildlife letter sent to burn ‘neighbors,’ click here.)

Because of the complex planning necessary and the possibility of rapidly changing weather conditions, burns sometimes are cancelled at the last minute. When the conditions are right, as they were the weekend of November 13-14, planners rejoice, and the evidence of their planning fills the skies. Because refuge and park lands are so expansive, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact location of a burn, but general areas are easy to spot: Galveston State Park, various refuges, wildlife management areas, and even a few parcels of private land.

A newly-ignited refuge fire seen from Brazoria County Road 208
A later view of the same fire from Hoskins Mound Road, showing different ignition points

The color and density of the smoke adds information for those viewing from a distance. The nature and amount of the fuel make a difference; newly ignited fires tend to billow, while a dying fire produces increasingly thin veils of smoke. The most memorable fire I’ve viewed took place at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge many years ago. In that instance, an absence of wind allowed billows of smoke to build so high that a small pyrocumulus cloud developed.

From time to time during the day, I stopped to watch the fires; by late afternoon, all were nearly extinguished. In the meantime, it was interesting to see them from different perspectives, rising above the same sort of plant communities that would benefit from their presence.

The next week, while crossing the Seabrook-Kemah bridge on Texas 146, I happened to look to the east, across Galveston Bay. On a far shore, more than twenty miles away, plumes of smoke were rising. Conditions must have been just right; some portion of the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge had been gifted with fire.

Comments always are welcome.

30 thoughts on “A Sign of the Season

  1. The first photo in your pyrocumulus link showed a fire and the resulting cloud near Wanaka, NZ, where we spent one night. In a manner of speaking, prescribed burns have spread even across large bodies of water.

    1. Now, that’s a coincidence. When I looked at the page, I noticed Christchurch, but most of the other names — including Wanaka — were unfamiliar. I’m glad your time in the area didn’t include pyrocumulus!

    1. That’s a perfect analogy. Care’s required for any burn, but especially in urban areas, or in places where fire’s been absent for an extended period of time and fuels have built up, it really does require constant, detailed attention: before, during, and after.

  2. It’s always interesting to see the range of bird species that descend on a grassland right after a burn, sometimes while embers are still glowing, to feed on the insects and other small organisms, especially invertebrates, that perished. We have successfully restored about forty acres of a farm to native prairie and will need a controlled burn sometime in the next year or two. I think the owners of the property are a tad nervous!

    1. A few weeks ago, I was at the Brazoria refuge when a different section had been recently burned, and the area was filled with Crested Caracaras, happily browsing over the land for tidbits. Another surprise a few years ago was visiting a newly burned section of land after only three or four days, and discovering spiders already setting up shop; the detritus was covered with webs.

      I’ve learned a good bit from a blog called The Prairie Ecologist. Chris Helzer’s the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science for Nebraska. I suspect if you do a search within the blog for ‘prescribed fire’ or ‘prairie restoration’ you might find something of interest.

  3. Prescribed fires in the west can also be quite dramatic, Linda. They are critical as a fire prevention tools, clearing out dead undergrowth before it hits the big time and helps create massive firestorms. I often see signs telling people not to report prescribed burns. Considerable work has been going on around Crater Lake over the past several years with crews creating burn piles by cutting up downed wood, etc. and piling it up to burn. They have also done the same thing in the national forest immediately behind our house. That was exciting. –Curt

    1. I can imagine. Exciting is one word; nerve-wracking would be another. I shared Thanksgiving with people who live outside Guerneville, and their description of the road system leading from their place to a main road that would allow evacuations reminded me of your situation. They’re halfway up, so a fire starting from below or from above could be equally catastrophic; they’re planning to move, as soon as they figure out a destination. Right now, the southern Cali desert is sounding good to them, although there are those water issues.

      It’s been interesting to learn about the ways fire can be used in forests. At Sandylands, our native longleaf pine preserve, fire’s critical to maintaining its natural state, allowing the grasses and forbs that belong there to thrive.

      1. Peggy and I are in Fort Bragg now, a couple of hours away from Guerneville. We are having dinner tonight with friends from Alaska to celebrate our anniversary. Tomorrow night, our friends will be in Guerneville visiting friends who own a winery. I’ve been over that road many times over they years. It’s a beautiful area, but not where you would want to be in a fire.

        Native Americans were using fire forever, so it seems, to improve forests. I’m not sure we owe Smokey the Bear thanks for his efforts to prevent fires. :)

        I was at Pt. Reyes National Seashore last week, and one of the things I photographed was knob cone pines. The cones require fire to burst open so their seeds can germinate.

        It’s a small world, Linda. :) –Curt

  4. I love that first photo and never would have guessed it was smoke in the background. Nature used to take care of this sort of thing itself, but with our spread it happens less frequently, hence the need for these controlled burns. As Curt mentioned, elsewhere in the country we’ve seen what can happen when there aren’t enough controlled burns. It almost causes a backup, and then one spark in the wrong place and we get an out of control fire that threatens homes. All that aside, though, I love how beneficial periodic fires can be. I’m always amazed at how quickly life returns. Seeing that green peek through the layer of black charcoal and ash is quite a sight.

    1. If you’d been there, you would have known; that smoke was roiling! But a photo can freeze a moment in time in such a way that there’s a bit of ambiguity, and in situations like that, I think we generally assume what’s most familiar: in this case, storm clouds.

      I’m fascinated by the return of life after a burn. A couple of times I’ve documented the process over a period of time, as I did here. One problem is finding the burn sites. Since our refuges are so large, the burns often take place well off public roads, but a recent one is wholly accessible, and I’m going to explore it later this week.

      Too many people don’t understand that fire plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy environment: in forests, as well as on prairies. There’s a lot of educating to be done.

    1. It was quite a revelation to me when I learned that controlled burns are part of preserving a healthy forest, too. Preventing wildfires is important, but it’s not the only reason that fire’s necessary. Paying attention to the needs of the forests, as well as to the needs of the people who choose to live there, is so important.

  5. It is heartening to see these lands being managed more in keeping with how they would have been in the wild. I like the top picture — the stark white of the heron (egret?) against the green.

    1. You’re absolutely right; that’s a Great Egret. It’s a part of the heron family (the Ardeidae) and that’s reflected in its scientific name (Ardea alba), but for this purpose ‘egret’ is better than ‘heron,’ and I changed it. This is why everyone needs an editor! Mine apparently was out to lunch.

    1. Given your location, you’re as aware as anyone of the damage that can be caused by wildfire. It was quite interesting to listen to conversation at the Thanksgiving table with two Sonoma County residents; they had some pointed things to say about how the fire situation has been managed in your state.

  6. On one level, I know controlled burns are important, but a huge part of me rebels at the necessity of willingly destroying something so beautiful, in hopes it will become more productive. And when I think about the wildfires out West, it saddens me that so much livestock and vegetation are being lost. Where you are, Linda, there’s plenty of water for not letting these fires get out of hand.

    1. To be honest, many of America’s forests and prairies have been willfully destroyed by people unwilling to allow them to thrive as they should. A refusal to allow any fire of any sort has led to the destruction of forests and towns, just as an insistence on encouraging invasive plant species because they’re pretty or fragrant has led to the disappearance of our native plant species and the birds and creatures that depend on them.

      Management and destruction aren’t the same thing. Think about your garden. If you planted your flowers, and then didn’t do a thing for the next six months, their beds would be taken over by weeds. Think of controlled burns as a way of helping Nature tend to her garden. I wish I could bring you down to show you a prairie where some was burned, and some not. After a year, the burned prairie is even more stunningly beautiful, with unexpected flowers and grasses everywhere.

      And just so you know, these controlled burns rarely get out of hand. I remember reading about a couple of examples in past years, but if there’s risk, everything stops until conditions improve. Sometimes, those ‘stops’ can go on for months!

  7. I always wonder about the burns. I know and understand the importance of them but I hate to see land destroyed and burning never leaves anything pretty. It takes it all. That gorgeous egret. It will be awhile before I see one again!

    1. I just don’t know how to communicate this to people: the land isn’t destroyed, it’s revived, and the beauty is there, in the burned land and in what appears when the regrowth begins — often after only a few days. Aesthetic appreciation isn’t the point, after all. Restoration and preservation of a natural treasure is.

    1. Isn’t that nice? I was on the auto loop road and caught a glimpse of the bird. So, I backed up and did the best I could with the lens I had. It worked out just fine.

    1. Thanks, Dina! It can be fun and interesting to try and track down the location of one of these fires. The refuges are so large that they often take place well away from access roads, but the smoke certainly isn’t hard to find!

  8. It’s not very often we have a prescribed burn here. Mostly they are in farmer’s fields after harvest. It’s just a very different environment.
    The contrast of the dark “clouds” of smoke and the brilliant white of the egret makes for a riveting picture.

    1. We have agricultural burns, too: and not just local ones. When they’re burning the cane fields in Louisiana and there’s a strong east wind, I can find ash on the boats. Sometimes, the smoke comes up from Mexico, although I don’t know which crops are being burned. I suspect that there’s some slash and burn agriculture being practiced, too.

      I was happy to find that egret hanging out in front of the smoke. A larger lens would have made for a better photo, but so it goes.

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