Outside the Fire…Chris Schenck

Chris Schenck works as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Statewide Fire Program Leader for the Wildlife Division.  He also serves on the Texas Department of Agriculture Prescribed Burn Board and, most importantly, he is a friend, colleague, and admirably passionate about fire’s role on Texas rangelands.

How did you get introduced to fire? In 1979 as a college student at Utah State University (the other Aggies), I got a summer job as a Fire Prevention Technician on the Wasatch Cache National Forest. The long time Fire Management Officer Neff Hardman took me and others under his wing and gave us lots of opportunities in fire and fuels. In the fall when most students were in a dull work study job several of us would be burning brush piles in the afternoon on the forest till dark. Later when ranching in Idaho I tried burning windrows of sage brush with little experienced in “controlled burning.” I found out after burning down a Union Pacific drift fence and part of the neighbors pasture how little I actually knew about Prescribed Burning.

What started as a really good summer job became a thirty plus year career in Fire and Aviation with the US Forest Service. I continued to learn and progress in many areas in fire during my time. I was blessed to work throughout much of the country and even Alaska and Australia. I worked on Hand Crews, Engines, Helicopter Crews and Incident Management Teams. I also worked in Structural Fire and as an Emergency Medical Technician. Later I was a Fire Management Officer of a District and then a National Forest.

I did make a pretty good living in fire suppression and we did a fair amount of Prescribed Burning in the shoulder seasons and traveling throughout the south in the winter. A lot to times on real big wildfires, I wondered if what we were doing really made a difference. Seemed like those wildfires were going to go out when they wanted to, but we would take credit for it any way. I did notice many times when we had conducted Prescribed Fires and other fuels treatments and big wildfires ran in to those areas we had a better chance to actually manage the fire.

The US Forest Service has a mandatory retirement of age 57 for folks in fire. This was tough for me as I had just about figured out what I was doing at that age. Fortunately a job came along with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The State Fire Program Leader for the Wildlife Division is the job I am currently in. This is perhaps the best job I have ever had in fire management. I am paid well travel all of Texas and don’t have to supervise anyone. More so my supervisors have empowered me to try to make a difference in the Division and there for in Prescribed Fire in Texas. The Division burns about 30-40,000 acres on Public lands and provides Technical Guidance for Prescribed Fire on 6-12,000 acres of private lands each year.   Perhaps this work in prescribed fire is a little penance for all the fire suppression of my youth.

How early do you start planning for a prescribed burn? A year in advance would not be too soon to start planning for prescribed burns. The Division allows burn plans to stand without major revision for 5 years. This would signify a 5 year rotation for fire on the burnable land in a given project. Our Burn Plans also receive technical review by another Burn Boss. We have developed burn plans with short turn around for Private Land Technical Guidance Prescribed Fire within a month. These are usually low complexity Prescribed Burns. Most important are site visits and developing a fuels and weather prescription.

What’s most unique about a post-fire environment? I think looking at the various fire effects and how the phoenix rises from the ashes so to speak. Certainly the immediate or first order fire effects is shocking to most viewers. Less so to me as I have a pretty good idea that with in a growing season new plant growth is coming. I have noticed in many ecosystems many native plants are hidden by the invasive species only to flourish in the post fire environment. Even in stand replacing fires in some fuel types we see results within that growing season. I am often disturbed by the terms used by the media about “destructive wildfires” or “total devastation.” Certainly these fires are destructive to people, infrastructure and livestock.   The ecosystem is often very resilient and comes back to more properly function stages. That’s where the phoenix comes from.

In your opinion, what makes a successful fire? Success is multi-faceted. At the most basic level is that we kept the fire in the box and folks were safe in doing it. At the most complex levels is that we achieved our most desirable management or ecological goal. In between there are a variety of measures of success. For land owner Technical Guidance, first entry burns I often here the land owner say ”At first I was a little worried about burning, but now I see that under the right conditions it can be done.”

On or public lands larger projects after multiple entries it is rewarding to see quantifiable changes in forage production and type, or actual improved water yields. On landscape prescribed fires it is great to see communities able to sustain and manage a wild fire because of strategic prescribed fire and fuels reduction programs.

Who or what would you never burn without? There are a few things: A good prescribed burn plan with a sound fire behavior and weather prescription. Good preparation of fire lines or holding features. Good dependable people and equipment. I truly believe that 70% of success in prescribed fire is in planning and preparation. If you have that the mindful execution of the plan makes the other 30% of the burn day enjoyable. Even with an occasional spot or slop over, you had a plan to catch it before it was an escape. That’s the way 99% of prescribed fires go

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