Sept. 30, 2011
By Teresa Mioli
State agencies are waiting for the smoke to clear and the rain to fall in order to assess the long-term toll that recent wildfires have taken on the Texas environment. The Texas Forest Service reports that about 3.8 million acres of Texas land have burned since wildfire season started on Nov. 15, 2010. Of the 254 counties in Texas, all but four report burn bans. (photo Bastrop State Park)
“When you talk about forests, they produce the cleanest water of any land use and so I think the potential impacts to our water resources are of significant concern,” said Simpson. He added that more than 80 percent of water resources originate on forest lands across the country. Simpson said that in some areas, fire has consumed vegetation all the way down to bare mineral soil. When it does rain in those areas, he said there is a potential for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Soil then enters the waterways.
How long the land will take to jump back from the wildfires is largely dependent on the amount of rainfall that occurs, Simpson said. Without significant rainfall in the future, he said the recovery will be a little slower than normal. According to a map released by the U.S. Drought Monitor on September 22, a majority of Texas is under exceptional drought. Depending on rainfall, Simpson said it could take a year or two for vegetation in the North Texas and Metroplex area to return to normal. (photo shuttershock)
“We’re working very closely with a lot of other cooperators to assess the damaged areas and develop guidance on what should be done in order to mitigate some of the environmental effects, mainly trying to help stabilize some of the severely burned areas to prevent erosion and sedimentation from occurring,” said Simpson.
Steve Lightfoot, spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that while wildfires mean a short-term reduction of native food supplies for wildlife, there is a bright side to the wildfire's impact on vegetation. Wildfires have burned plant species that have caused damaged to native plant communities in recent years, he said. “When the habitat does recover and we do get some rains, a lot of the re-growth that comes in there are going to be some of the desirable plant species, the native plants that are so beneficial to wildlife. So that’s a positive and we’ve seen that occur elsewhere after a lot of these wildfires,” said Lightfoot.
Lightfoot cited the aftermath of a wildfire that completely burned the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in South Texas a few years ago. He said that after rains, there was a huge rejuvenation of native plants, quail started to rebound and deer were healthier. “Fire has been one of the mainstays for habitat over time. It’s been part of the landscape. So nature tends to rebound any time you get a change in the habitat,” Lightfoot said.
In addition to changes on land, Texas Forest Service analysts said that the wildfires could impact the forest's ability to produce clean air. "[Forests] filter pollutants, whether that's soot or nitrogen oxide, or various other pollutants. And when you have large areas that have been destroyed, then you lose some of the benefits of the clean air that our forests provide us with. They also help moderate our climate, largely through carbon sequestration," said Simpson.
Wildfires have affected thousands of acres near and within state park land.
Lightning caused the wildfire referred to as the Possum Kingdom Complex on April 9 and burned more than 126,000 acres, said Simpson. A separate fire currently burning
in the area has scorched more than 6,000 acres. Peggy Barrington, a park ranger at Possum Kingdom State Park, said that hiking trail and primitive campsites were lost to wildfire, but that the drought has had more of an impact on wildlife.
About 95 percent of Bastrop State Park has been burned by wildfire, according to a TFS news release. The Bastrop Complex fire, comprised of two separate wildfires, began on September 4 and went on to burn more than 34,000 acres in the Bastrop area. Bastrop State Park officials are concerned about the wildfires’ potential impacts on the endangered Houston toad, according to a TPWD news release. The Lost Pines area of Bastrop County has the largest known population in the U.S. of the federally-protected Houston toad, the release states. (Houston Toad - Barstrop State Park)
Teresa Mioli is a freelance journalist living in the DFW area. She previously wrote for the Beaumont Enterprise where she covered everything from breaking news to life and entertainment. She was State, Enterprise and General Assignment reporter for the Daily Texan at the University of Texas at Austin where she received a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Art (Plan II).