Panhandle Range Will Recover Quickly

DATE: March 23, 2006
CONTACT: Norman Martin,
(806) 742-4108

LUBBOCK – Those raging wildfires that burned more than 1,000 square miles across the parched Panhandle last week left behind a sea of blackened grass and brush, but a Texas Tech University scientist says ranchers just need to be patient.

With timely rains, Texas’ plains cattle country will be back, covered in a green carpet of new range grass by early summer.

“The only good thing about these fires is that they moved incredibly fast, and a fast moving fire doesn’t burn down into the crown of grass plants,” said Carlton Britton, director of Texas Tech’s Fire Ecology Center and an expert on Texas range improvement.

Areas swallowed by the flames were centered on the state’s northern rolling rangelands, formally called short and tall grass prairies. Dominated by sandy soils, they’re covered with a mix of hardy native range grasses, including little bluestem, blue grama and sideoats grama grass. Today, the land is largely used for cattle operations and quail habitat.

Based on 40 years of studying range wildfires and dozens of prescribed rangeland burns, Britton said the Panhandle range will fully recover in a year. But well before that much of the grass will be back, thanks to opportune rains, he said.

Luckily, within a week of the fires, a massive storm system whipped across the plains on the last day of winter, dumping more than an inch of rain and snow on many areas. That saturating moisture will be a stabilizing soil influence and a good bed for new growth.

“It will be amazing,” Britton said. “What looks so horrible today will be beautiful grassland in just a few months because of that. Those grasses, which are ecologically adapted to fire, are going to come ripping out of the ground if we get a few more rains.”

Britton cautioned that while the fires have cleared the land of debris and rains have moistened the soil, now is not the time to reseed. Some ranchers will look at this time as an opportunity to plant new grass, but he said the grass in place isn’t dead.
“Let’s not tear the soil surface up and kill the grasses that are still alive in a reseeding process,” Britton said. “Patience is needed now. It’s hard to look at the land and not worry, but just wait till the soil warms up.”

Even so, the Texas Tech researcher noted that there may be some isolated problem spots. There will be so-called blowout areas where the wind chews into the sandy soil, creating a miniature desert, he said. These areas are not going to come back quickly and they’ll have to be repaired.

It’s been a tough year for Texas ranchers, landowners and firefighters. Statewide, deadly wildfires have consumed almost 5 million acres during the past three months, according to the Texas Forest Service.

On the High Plains, the series of wind-driven rural fires at the end of March stretched through Collinsworth, Wheeler, Carson, Hutchinson, Donley, Gray, Childress and Cottle counties scorching some 960,000 acres. After viewing the charred land, Gov. Rick Perry called the loss of livestock, homes and other property “staggering.” At the height of the crisis, 11 wind-driven fires were burning.

The extent of the fire is unbelievable, Britton agreed. The Panhandle hasn’t seen fires of this scale since 1885, when a huge grass fire swept across the cattle range for weeks, he said.

Contact: Carlton Britton, director of Texas Tech’s Fire Ecology Center, (806) 742-2842, or