Outside the Fire – Wesley Evans, Regional Fire Coordinator, Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.

This November we are featuring Wesley Evans, Regional Fire Coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife.  Wesley is based out of Mason, Texas and I have never met a more dedicated and caring individual for the stewardship of prescribed fire.  Wesley is super cool and he has my #1 favorite quality in prescribed burning practitioner – HE GET’S IT!  Meet one of my favorite TPW people, Wesley Evans…

tpwHow did you get introduced to fire?
I more or less lucked into fire. After graduating college, I didn’t have much direction or job prospects – I was literally sleeping on my buddy’s couch. One of my friend’s cousins was a District Fire Management Officer for the US Forest Service and she called me letting me know that they were going to have some firefighter jobs opening up soon and that I should apply. I applied and was hired on the Rolla Ranger District of the Mark Twain NF. The job was only a six month position, but only after a few weeks of prescribed burning and fighting wildfires I was hooked. As that job was starting to wind down, I began applying for fire positions all over the country. I was offered a position with the US Fish & Wildlife Service at Balcones Canyonlands NWR in the summer of 1999. I took the position, which turned out to be for a crewmember on a Prescribed Fire Module that would travel all over Texas (and the rest of the US) burning. The rest, as they say, is history. After 14 years with the USFWS, I moved to my current position with Texas Parks & Wildlife – still travelling and burning, but now just throughout Texas.

Do you make special plans for fire in your management plans well in advance, or take advantage of good fuel and weather conditions as they come? I try to find a way to do both. Weather is highly variable, so trying to plan a burn well in advance is most often an exercise in futility. I’ve found that the best approach is to take advantage of those good fire weather days as soon as possible because you might not get many more opportunities in a given burn season. This was relatively easy when I worked for an agency that had dedicated fire staff and equipment. With that being my only frame of reference for many years, I always that just thought that was the way it was done. The last few years in my new job working with private landowners, PBAs, and other agencies has shown me that this approach was the exception rather than the rule. While I was used to deciding to burn a particular unit the day before, I quickly learned that that’s more than often not possible in the “real world”. Now, I have to work through the same challenges that everyone else does in trying to balance prescribed burning with everything else we have to do. So how do I plan well in advance yet still take advantage of those good fire conditions? The very first thing is to set expectations from the start of the planning process. The more flexibility we can set in the burn plan, the more chance of success in both meeting the management goals or even getting a chance to burn. I try to dissuade my landowners from picking one specific day well in advance to burn. Sometimes it’s just the way it has to be, but I would much rather plan for a 3-5 consecutive day burn window during burn season or several days throughout the season. Planning to burn on January 22 really paints you into a corner and limits your flexibility. I’d rather see something like planning on burning January 20-23 and then picking a specific day once we are about a week out when the weather forecasts are a little more accurate. I’ve also had success with planning on burning on several days spaced out over time, such as Fridays in February. Breaking up a burn area into several smaller units and not just one large unit can also help to take advantage of those “just right” burn conditions and also allow for success if the burn day is marginal, but the people and equipment are available and ready to burn. More often than not it will take less people to burn a smaller burn unit, so it may be easier to get enough folks to burn 50 acres on short notice rather than 400. Along those same lines, if we have planned on a burn day in advance and the weather isn’t right for burning the whole unit there may be possibility to burn a smaller area. If the RH is too high, can you burn a small portion to make a blackline or buffer? If the wind direction isn’t good for the whole unit, can you still burn part of it that won’t smoke out your neighbor or that highway? I had one larger burn planned well in advance when we were going to have the proper amount of people and equipment, but it ended up snowing that day. We were still able to take advantage of having everyone there by burning piles that were along the edge of the burn unit, making burning the large unit much easier. I also try to make my prescriptions as broad as possible to take advantage of “marginal” burn days. For example, higher winds can offset higher RH and still produce adequate fire behavior to meet management goals. Having really good fire breaks can also let you take advantage of those marginal days on the other end of the prescription. I’m much more comfortable burning under hotter and drier conditions if we have nice and wide fire breaks down to mineral soil and no brush or volatile fuels close to the line. The bottom line is that building flexibility into the planning process and the burn plans will allow more success. This can also help in avoiding those situations where you may get stuck trying to burn under marginal conditions and either not meet management objectives OR have the fire get away.

What’s the hook for you on fire? I think there has been three different stages of my fire career, each with their own hook. When I first started, I loved prescribed fire because it was fun, exciting, and allowed me to travel. What 22-25 year old guy wouldn’t love traveling all over the country dragging a drip torch or working on a fire engine, right? After several years of this, fire is still exciting and fun but not the main reason that I enjoy prescribed burning. About 8 years ago I would have probably said that I burned just because it was a job, but looking back on it that’s not the case. At that point I loved prescribed fire because of the challenge/problem-solving aspect of it. I enjoyed (and still do) being given a difficult assignment on a burn and trying to find the best and safest way to complete it was the hook for me. Now, the main reason I love prescribed fire is that I can teach people about prescribed fire. When we assist a landowner who has little to know experience with fire (or who’s only experience is with wildfire) and show them what a properly planned and executed prescribed fire looks like, the reaction is always the same – “that wasn’t that bad/scary. I think that’s something we could do.” I love that. Or when you can see the light bulb come on as someone is doing something as simple as operating a drip torch. That’s the hook for me. I’ve seen it time and time again and it doesn’t matter who it is. Young or old, man or woman. At first they are timid, walking slow maybe even holding the torch with two hands. At the end of the day they are slinging that torch like a hotshot and showing others how to do it. That’s the hook for me now. I still enjoy the fun, excitement, and challenge – but the teaching/mentoring is what motivates me to keep burning.

In your opinion, what makes a successful fire? First of all, it’s a successful fire when everyone gets home safe (that’s probably the wildland firefighter in me). If we managed to keep all the equipment running and didn’t break anything, that’s a plus. I also think it’s successful if everyone involved learned something on the fire. It doesn’t really matter what they learned – as long as they learned something. It can be about fire behavior, specific firing techniques, weather influences, how a particular fuel burns, the planning process, etc. Even if someone learned that they don’t really care for burning and it’s not the tool for them, that’s still an important thing to know. A burn is also successful if we can put a column of smoke up in the air and it doesn’t result in a ton of calls into 911, worried neighbors, etc. This is really important in the wildland-urban interface. Getting communities more comfortable with prescribed burning is vitally important in growing the fire culture here in Texas. The last measure of success for me is meeting the management objectives. If we can be successful in all of the ways above and still meet objectives, than I’d consider a burn to be fully successful. If objective aren’t met yet everyone is safe, folks learned a thing or two, and we promoted the fire culture a little in the area – I’m still more than pleased.

Who in your burn circle/crew would you never burn without?  That’s a tough question just because I burn in so many different places with so many different folks. In most cases, I will do a burn on one ranch or with a cooperator and then on the next burn I do there will be a whole new set of people. I suppose it is one disadvantage of my job that I’m not able to burn with the same people every time. If you do 30 or 40 burns with someone, you get to know how they think and are able to predict their thoughts and actions somewhat. It’s like playing pick-up basketball. You play with the same bunch of guys for long enough, and you start to know each one’s tendencies and strengths/weaknesses. Then you go to a different court or gym and have to learn it all over again. In the second situation, you can only be successful if there is plenty of communication and everyone is willing to work with each other. Seems to me that’s about the same as a burn crew. Our staff here at TPWD are very well trained, so even if I’ve never burned with one of our employees or even just met them – I know that they have been trained to the same standard that we all have and know the basics. I’ve always had positive experiences burning with the PBAs as well. The wealth of knowledge and experience in all of the burn associations I’ve worked with is such that I’m comfortable on those burns even if I’ve never met some (or most) of the folks on the burn. So, I guess an answer to the question is that there isn’t anyone that I wouldn’t burn without. I don’t really have that luxury. As long as everyone is willing to learn and communicate, I’ve always had good experience with all my burn crews – even complete strangers.

Thank you Wesley for all that you do for prescribed burning on Texas rangelands!

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