Fort Worth wants to light more fires in parks near populated areas. Here’s why

dfwnewsa | January 16, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth wants to light more fires in parks near populated areas. Here’s why

A member of Fort Worth’s prescribed fire team lights the hillside on fire at Chisholm Trail Park in southwest Fort Worth, on Jan. 11, 2024. Onlookers at the top of the hill participated in a workshop promoting the benefits of prescribed burns in residential settings. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)
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Flames engulfed patches of prairie at southwest Fort Worth’s Chisholm Trail Park, surrounded by apartments, homes, a skate park and a nearby high school. Drivers slowed to watch what appeared to be a massive response by firefighters and city staff. 

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But, as the “PRESCRIBED BURN AHEAD” signs indicated, the Jan. 11 fire was anything but accidental. Months before men began torching grass for ecological and wildfire prevention benefits, Jared Hall and Jared Wood were planning what the burn would look like — as well as the weather and nature conditions necessary to make it happen. 

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“There’s so much science that goes into it now that it takes months and months of planning to pull something like this off,” Wood, natural resources manager for the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, said. “It’s not anywhere close to: ‘Hey, today’s sunny and feels good. Let’s light a match.’” 

Historically, prescribed fire on public view has been rare in Fort Worth, with most burns taking place within the boundaries of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge or, more recently, on a 1.5-acre prairie owned by the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. 

The “Jareds” — affectionately nicknamed by Rob Denkhaus, the nature center’s executive director — are taking steps to change that. In addition to hosting a workshop and live fire at Chisholm Trail, their team submitted prescribed fire permit requests for Casino Beach Park, Rolling Hills Tree Farm, the nature center and the botanic garden. 

The Casino Beach burn, near Lake Worth, was completed just before Christmas. Other burns at natural areas are planned between now and February, depending on appropriate weather and logistics. On-site staff take measurements of wind speed, temperature, humidity and other factors to ensure the safety of the surrounding area. 

“We’re not just lighting fire all over town just to do it,” Hall, the natural resources manager for Fort Worth’s parks department, said. “We have sensitive resources that we’re really trying to use the right tools to best manage so they’re not just sitting there. Invasive species have been a big, big issue in a lot of our areas, and that’s what we’re trying to combat and prevent.”

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Participants in a city of Fort Worth workshop observe a prescribed burn in Chisholm Trail Park on Jan. 11, 2024. The burn took place close to roads, houses and businesses. Fort Worth’s parks and recreation department conducted the burn to show other cities and organizations how they can burn in populated areas. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report) Members of the parks and recreation department? light portions of dry grass at Chisholm Trail Park on fire Thursday, Jan. 11. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)A prescribed burn took place near businesses and homes in west Fort Worth, Thursday Jan. 11, 2024. Residents and businesses nearby were told about the burn ahead of time. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report Fire burns at Chisholm Trail Park in West Fort Worth, Thursday Jan. 11. The fire was lit after months of planning. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report) Workshop participants watch as the smoke clears at Chisholm Trail Park in West Fort Worth. Participants were invited to observe a prescribed burn in a heavily populated area on Thursday, Jan. 11. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

After moving at a ‘snail’s pace,’ burns have wide-ranging support

Nature center staff have set fires to remove thick thatch buildup and add nutrients back into the soil since about 1980, Denkhaus said. Sometimes known as “controlled burns” or “planned fires,” prescribed burns can be designed to reduce invasive species, help endangered species recover, or reduce the amount of natural fuel for potential wildfires, according to the National Park Service. 

That ecological reasoning has long been clear to Denkhaus and his staff. But it was decidedly less popular among city officials concerned about using fire to prevent fire, he said. Federal policies also encouraged suppression of all fires for most of the 20th century. 

“Societally, we’ve gone from Smokey the Bear, all fires are bad, to managed fires can be useful, and the all-fires-are-bad attitude has created these problems and amplified our problems,” Denkhaus said. 

Over several decades, Denkhaus and other nature center leaders pushed for more prescribed burns, citing training opportunities for firefighters and reduction of catastrophic wildfires like those seen during the 2011 drought. 

Prescribed fire now has support from the fire department and politicians like Fort Worth City Council member Jared Williams, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental science and science education. Williams, who did not immediately return a request for comment, spoke at the Jan. 11 workshop and supported the Chisholm Trail burn in his district, Denkhaus said. 

“The city of Fort Worth’s natural resource management program moved along at a true snail’s pace back in the day, but now that snail is sprinting,” he said. “It’s exciting to see things happen that have been discussed in the natural resources world for Fort Worth for 30-plus years.”

Jared Hall, natural resources manager for Fort Worth’s parks department, walks on a path near a Jan. 11, 2024, prescribed fire in Chisholm Trail Park. Since starting in his position in February 2023, Hall has overseen the expansion of Fort Worth’s prescribed burn program. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

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Adding strategies, resources to the parks department’s ‘toolbox’

The need for prescribed fire and other science-based approaches to natural resource management has risen with Fort Worth’s focus on purchasing open space for preservation, Wood said. Voters approved a $15 million bond for open space acquisition back in 2022, but Hall and Wood are among only a few staff members focused on managing the properties. 

“What is one person going to accomplish on these thousands and thousands of acres spread out across five counties now?” Hall said. “That’s been the big thing. How are we going to take care of this long term?” 

Hall is hopeful that Mark McDaniel, the city’s first greenspace champion before he was named deputy city manager this month, will help get the ball rolling on long-term planning and fundraising for more positions like his. 

Fort Worth also seeks to forge a path for other cities, organizations and private landowners to follow when it comes to prescribed burns. The sold-out workshop, hosted over two days in mid-January, attracted dozens of people interested in bringing the land management technique to their own backyards. 

As the North Texas program director for the Texas Land Conservancy, Amber Arseneaux primarily works with landowners who want to protect their land from development. 

Prescribed burns can be intimidating without an educational background in the importance of fire in managing prairies and grasslands, she said. The cost of hiring professionals to conduct the fire and obtain liability insurance is also a factor, Arseneaux said. Learning from Fort Worth staff and the experts they brought in will help her determine a path forward for landowners interested in prescribed burns.

Members of Fort Worth’s prescribed fire team lights the hillside on fire at Chisholm Trail Park in southwest Fort Worth, on Jan. 11, 2024. The burn is part of the city’s focus on expanding prescribed burns to parks near populated areas. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)Jared Hall, natural resources manager for Fort Worth’s parks department, explains the safety plan for a prescribed burn Thursday, Jan. 11 at Chisholm Trail Park. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)Fort Worth hopes to conduct more prescribed burns like the one it oversaw on Jan. 11, 2024, at Chisholm Trail Park. Burns help eliminate invasive species, restore soil nutrients and reduce wildfire risk. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

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“We’re not in a position with what we do to lead our own burns, but now we have access to a network of people who know what they’re doing and who also have resources to send us to other people if we need them,” Arseneaux said. 

While burns will probably get the most publicity, community members will notice Fort Worth parks staff taking other actions that go beyond “just mowing and weeding” in the coming years, Wood said. The parks department previously had a big toolbox with only a couple tools in it, Denkhaus said. 

“We’re adding tools to that toolbox, fully equipping and allowing us to do better ecological management, but also more efficient, more economical, and more long-term management over wider landscapes,” he said. 

Hall pointed to an upcoming partnership with the Texas A&M Forest Service to remove invasive species, like privet, from Love Circle Park through mulching, chemical treatment and potential prescribed fires. The city could also see funding from a federal air quality improvement plan being developed by the North Central Texas Council of Governments. 

Whatever the path forward is, it’s important to slow down and pick the right strategies for Fort Worth, Wood said. 

“We spent many, many years building up to this and it’s getting really exciting right now,” Wood said. “But we also are always challenging each other to move slow, think this through and review all the scientific types of approaches so that whoever comes after us has something sound to work with.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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