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Texas fires: Burned rangeland can recover quickly, but cattle ranchers face struggles ahead to find and feed their herds

Karen Hickman, Oklahoma State University, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Strong winds spread the largest wildfire in Texas history across more than 1 million acres of rangeland in the Panhandle, the heart of the state’s cattle-producing region, and into Oklahoma in late February 2024. Light precipitation on Feb. 29 helped firefighters as they tried to contain the Smokehouse Creek Fire and other blazes threatening homes and livestock, but the heat and winds were forecast to pick up again. At least two people have died.

Karen Hickman, a grassland ecologist at Oklahoma State University and president of the Society for Range Management, explained why the fires spread so fast, the risks to livestock and how quickly these ecosystems can recover.

This region of Texas and Oklahoma is mostly rangeland where cattle graze. A combination of higher-than-average temperatures and low humidity had dried out the dormant plants. When the winds picked up following a couple of hot, dry days, all it took was a spark to start a wildfire.

The Texas Panhandle is mostly shortgrass prairie species that evolved with fire. But Texas also has Conservation Reserve Program fields planted with perennial species that might be mid- or tall grasses. Those taller grasses have a higher fuel load that can feed a fire more than the short grass species.

Across the border, that area of Oklahoma is more rugged and has another problem: a lot of eastern red cedar that are native but have expanded as invasive species because of the lack of periodic fire. When mature cedar trees burn, they can send embers flying, increasing the risk to homes and towns.

When fires spread that fast, it often means embers are blowing ahead of the actual fire and across any potential firebreaks that exist.

 

The wind’s shifting direction – it sometimes changed direction two or three times in a day – also made the fire harder to control. Fire crews and ranchers can try to protect the area ahead of the fire, only to see the wind shift and blow the fire in another direction. It’s dangerous to people and livestock, and it makes it hard to stop the fire’s spread.

Those lands are either being rested through the dormant season or being grazed by livestock this time of year, and there are likely new calves, as well. Texas livestock producers have been trying to move their cattle to safety, but in some cases they had to cut the fences and let the cattle go on their own.

In Oklahoma’s rougher terrain and canyons, it can be even harder to get the cattle out because they go into the canyons to get away from the fierce winds.

For livestock producers, the immediate needs will be saving and then gathering their herds again.

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