A controlled burn – also known as a prescribed burn – refers to a fire set in a limited area to reduce invasive vegetation, promote the growth of native plant species and improve the quality of wildlife habitat. Controlled burns are conducted under the supervision of a team of fire experts to ensure the fire is safely managed and remains contained within the target area. Controlled burning mimics natural events and is one tool the Flood Control District can utilize in sparsely populated areas to help maintain ecologically sensitive areas such as prairies and some wetland habitats.
As an example, the Flood Control District is planning a controlled burn at a protected wetlands mitigation area it owns and maintains on the Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County (See below for important updates). Regular controlled burns are recommended as part of the long-term maintenance of this ecologically sensitive area, to maintain prairie species and control invasive vegetation.
Environmental benefits of controlled burns are numerous and well-established:
- They help balance the need for herbicide usage in controlling unwanted invasive species such as Chinese tallow, Johnson grass and Macartney rose. If left unchecked, these invasives can choke out beneficial prairie grasses and other native vegetation.
- They promote the germination of certain species – such as certain types of native wildflowers, grasses and forbs – by helping to release and disperse dormant seed pods.
- By-products of the controlled burn provide important nutrients for native plants.
- They produce healthier, more diverse and open habitat for wildlife.
Controlled burns must be carefully planned and timed to minimize risks to residents and property. Prior to any burn-related activities, the Flood Control District’s state-certified burn management consultants will notify all required regulatory agencies, including the Texas Forest Service, Harris County Emergency Dispatch, and local fire departments.
Controlled burns are conducted subject to weather conditions, including humidity and wind speed. The “80-20-20 rule” is often used for choosing a burn date: Temperatures of less than 80 degrees, humidity of more than 20 percent and wind speeds of less than 20 m.p.h.
The fires are lit by hand, and controlled through a series of fire breaks or nonflammable barriers, as well as by choosing weather conditions that naturally help control the prescribed burn.
Controlled burns are a benefit to native plants and animals that have adapted to fire. Prairie grasses, for example, which developed in ecosystems mostly lacking in trees and subject to frequent wildfires caused by lightning strikes, developed deep roots and the ability to regenerate from those roots. Birds and other small wildlife that are native to prairie habitat instinctively run, fly or seek shelter to escape danger. Wildlife returns quickly to the site of the controlled burn as it regenerates with native species and improved overall habitat.
Controlled Burn on Flood Control District Property in Northwest Harris County
In late November and early December, 2016, the Harris County Flood Control District conducted a controlled burn on its 440-acre tract, formally identified as HCFCD Unit K700-01-00, which is a protected wetlands mitigation area near the intersection of Katy Hockley and House Hahl roads in northwest Harris County.
Raven Environmental Services, an experienced and state-certified burn management consultant based in Huntsville, conducted the controlled burn for the Flood Control District, and notified all required regulatory agencies, including the Texas Forest Service, Harris County Emergency Dispatch, and local fire departments.
Questions or comments about the controlled burn may be directed to the Flood Control District's Project and Study Information Line, 713-684-4040.
More About Wetlands Creation and Restoration at K700-01-00
Wetlands are defined as saturated low areas which provide habitat for a variety of water-loving vegetation and wildlife. The Flood Control District is creating and restoring wetland habitat at its K700-01-00 site on the Katy Prairie. This area provides required mitigation for other projects that will impact native wetlands, specifically the Greenhouse Stormwater Detention Basin (U500-02-00), at Greenhouse and Longenbaugh roads; John Paul’s Landing Stormwater Detention Basin, near the intersection of Katy-Hockley Cutoff and Sharp roads; and other future flood damage reduction projects in the Upper Langham Creek watershed.
With guidance from environmental specialists, workers shaped mounds of soils, or berms, around low areas at the site, to form what will become new depressional wetlands. Wetland restoration at the site also includes planting bog rush, swamp smartweed, duck potato, powdered thalia and maidencane. This site is permanently protected as wetlands habitat and is not currently open to the public.