Energy & Environment

Houston Firefighters To Carry Out Controlled Burn At Arboretum For First Time In 20 Years

Prescribed fires are a land management technique that help prevent future fires and revitalize the soil.

The Houston Arboretum carried out a prescribed burn of its meadow in 1999. Another controlled burn will take place soon, in partnership with the Houston Fire Department and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Houston Fire Department is planning to carry out a controlled burn within city limits, for the first time in more than two decades.

Firefighters will burn seven acres of the Houston Arboretum's savanna area, as part of its overall conservation strategy. The goal is to help prevent future fires and revitalize the land.

Once the burning takes place, ash created by the fire comes back down to earth, where it returns nutrients and rejuvenates the soil, according to Christine Mansfield with the Houston Arboretum. She added that there are numerous other conservation benefits to prescribed fires, such as removing invasive species and giving wildflowers room to grow.

"It also helps us take care of these landscapes, so it reduces invasive species that aren't used to dealing with fire," she said. "And then it creates those openings as well for both grasses and wildflowers to sprout up, so there’s a lot of really wonderful benefits of doing prescribed burns."

Mansfield said controlled burns mimic fires that would naturally occur in the past from lightning strikes.

The last time the Houston Arboretum approved a prescribed burn was in 1999, she said.

"What they saw afterwards was a really, really wonderful fall wildflower season," Mansfield said.

The Houston Arboretum has tested natural conservation methods to replace commercial mowing amd herbicides, including bringing in goats to graze in certain areas. Mocha, pictured here, established herself as one of the leaders of the herd, her owners said.

The arboretum has been testing out natural conservation strategies to replace commercial mowing and herbicides. Over the past six months, the arboretum has brought in goats on several occasions to mow the grounds and remove invasive species.

Mansfield said the controlled burn will occur in one of the areas where the goats previously grazed.

"We’re sort of hitting it with both the grazers and the fire this year to see how the landscape responds," she said. "This will hopefully knock back some of the things that the goats didn’t eat all of, or that were already dormant and the goats weren’t interested in because there weren’t green sprouts on it."

The exact date of the burn will depend on weather conditions, but it's set to take place sometime between March 22 and April 2.

Justin Huddleston, the wildland coordinator for the Houston Fire Department, said for the burn to be safe, numerous weather conditions all need to line up — things like temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction.

"When we light the fire we don't want the smoke to linger real low and impact the environment, impact traffic all those things," he said. "We write the prescription ahead of time to where we're looking for that smoke to travel up outside of the treetops into the air, and then at a certain height it dissipates and disperses."

Huddleston said if the burn at the arboretum is deemed a success, the plan is to work with Memorial Park Conservancy and the Houston Parks Department to do more prescribed burns in the future.

"It could become a partnership where we create a schedule for management of the Houston parks system inside the city and do this every so often," he said.

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