Volunteers unload hay at the large animal shelter and livestock supply point set up by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in the wake of the Bastrop County fire.
Volunteers unload hay at the large animal shelter and livestock supply point set up by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in the wake of the Bastrop County fire.

The recent Bastrop County fire that burned more than 4,600 acres served as a warning to landowners and rural homeowners that additional wildfires may be on the horizon.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service officials said early spring and summer rains promoted a lot of grass and forage growth, which can serve as wildfire fuel as it dries down. Now is the time to plan – before the next fire starts – to mitigate damages, they said.

To indicate how dry things are getting and the potential of fire, the Texas A&M Forest Service reported on Oct. 19 there had been 117 fires on 9,013 acres in the past seven days, primarily in East and Central Texas.

The forecast for fire danger has shifted from primarily Central and East Texas to include the Rolling Plains and the eastern portion of the Texas Panhandle as having high or very high fire ratings and increasingly dry fuel.

Dr. Ted McCollum, AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist in Amarillo, said as the plant life starts drying down with the first freeze in the next couple weeks in the Panhandle and then moves south, landowners need to check to make sure they are fire-ready.

“These ranchers and landowners need to be out tending their fire breaks along their fence lines and checking their water tanks and other firefighting equipment to make sure they are in working order,” McCollum said.

He said when the higher winds start whipping power lines and electrical sources above these heavy growths of grass and brush, conditions will be ripe once again for more wildfires. Any locations where an electrical source is present, such as oil and gas well pumps, should be checked to ensure the lines cannot swing into contact with one another and create a spark.

McCollum also said anyone tending livestock might want to have equipment, even a broom, in their pickups to fight fire as the season moves closer. And neighbors should begin talking to one another about potential escape plans for their livestock.

In response to the fire that broke out on Oct. 13 in Bastrop County, AgriLife Extension was requested to open the first of what might be several livestock supply points this wildfire season. One week later, the responsibilities were turned over to local volunteers.

AgriLife Extension’s Ag Strike Team at Bastrop included seven county agents, three district AgriLife Extension administrators, two regional program directors and two specialists. Four additional members were on standby, according to Dr. Andy Vestal, AgriLife Extension emergency management program director in College Station.

AgriLife Extension gets involved long before conditions elevate to a major threat by supporting the Texas Division of Emergency Management to communicate family, community and business preparedness and mitigation practices through its news network, AgriLife Today, and through county agent communications and educational events, Vestal said.

“And long after the wildfires are extinguished, AgriLife Extension county agents and specialists have an important responsibility to revive the economic fabric in the community,” he said.

Vestal said AgriLife Extension has seven Strike Teams comprised of five to seven county agents who are experienced to perform animal recovery, shelter and care during any crisis, including wildfires.

The request for assistance at Bastrop was made by Rachel Bauer, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. Her request included setting up operations for receiving wildfire-threatened livestock, and feed and hay resources at the large animal shelter and livestock supply point. About 250 animals were checked in during the fires.

Bauer and AgriLife Extension agents from Fayette, Guadalupe, Travis and Wilson counties worked with the Texas Animal Health Commission, Bastrop County officials and volunteers to go to affected areas and locate livestock to determine their condition and relative safety.

“We took in a lot of livestock, mainly horses and cattle, but also some sheep, goats, hogs and poultry,” she said. “Some of the animals have already been claimed by or returned to landowners.”

Bauer said in some instances, they were contacted by landowners who wanted them to come get their livestock. In other cases, they found loose livestock or livestock in the path of the fire and coordinated with the owners to relocate the animals to safety.

Feed and other maintenance items for the livestock were provided through individual donations and the generosity of area feed stores and tractor supply operations, she said. Additionally, supplies were made available to those who need to repair fencing.

“Our primary responsibility is to coordinate feed and supplies, assist with livestock evacuation, intake and distribution, and manage the volunteers who come to help,” Bauer said.

She said advanced preparation helped the process go smoother than in past years.

“People are more aware and prepared than we have seen in the past,” she said. “The planning has been better and things are running more smoothly. It seems like the experiences of the wildfire in 2011 and efforts to better inform people about livestock safety during a fire have had a positive effect.”

For a complete list of wildfire-related documents concerning preparation, mitigation and recovery, go to: http://texashelp.tamu.edu/004-natural/fires.php.