Reintroducing Natural Disturbances
The area where the Arboretum now stands once experienced fire every 1-3 years thanks to dry summer grasses and lightning strikes. Frequent, low-intensity fires would clear shrubs, trees, and dead vegetation, making space for grasses and wildflowers and providing a boost of nutrients in the soil. Suppressing natural fire has allowed unnaturally dense vegetation to cover the Arboretum and has increased the risk of dangerous, high-intensity fires by allowing dead plant material to accumulate.
Now, the Arboretum is collaborating with local and state agencies like Houston Fire Department (HFD) and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) to reintroduce fire. Prescribed fires safely and effectively reduce the risk of severe wildfires, create microhabitats to benefit native species, and promote natural changes in vegetation structure. Studies support the use of fire as a tool for ecological restoration; other methods that simply mimic fire can’t replace all of the benefits that fire provides. The Conservation staff monitor prescribed fires within the Arboretum to understand their effectiveness and potential for use in the wider urban landscape.
Please check back for more information on upcoming prescribed fires.
Past Prescribed Fires
February 27, 2023
Because of the previous year’s less successful prescribed fire, the Arboretum once again burned the three acre Meadow area.
March 24, 2022
The Arboretum conducted a prescribed fire in the Meadow. Wet conditions and an abundance of spring growth resulted in incomplete burn coverage.
March 25, 2021
More than 20 years after its first burn, the Arboretum conducted a successful prescribed fire on seven acres of savanna habitat in the northwest corner of the site.
The Arboretum’s first prescribed fire occurred in late 1999 with the help of Houston Fire Department and Armand Bayou Nature Center, and resulted in a beautiful fall wildflower season.
A prescribed fire is a carefully planned and executed intentional fire. When planning a prescribed fire, public safety, weather patterns, and the surrounding environment are all taken into account.
Prescribed fires have many benefits and can be used in a variety of ecosystems. This particular prescribed fire will:
- Decrease the threat of destructive wildfires during dry periods
- Return nutrients to the soil
- Reduce invasive and woody species that seek to encroach upon our native prairie and savanna ecosystems without the use of herbicide
- Create new openings for native grasses and wildflowers to sprout
- Increase the biodiversity of the Arboretum’s ecosystems
- Provide environmental education opportunities
All of the Arboretum’s recent prescribed fires have been conducted in late winter or early spring. If adequate weather conditions are not met the morning of the fire, the burn will be rescheduled.
Houston Arboretum & Nature Center conservation staff work with Houston Fire Department’s (HFD) highly trained and certified wildland firefighters to conduct these burns. Texas Parks and Wildlife’s (TPWD) State Fire Program Leader may also be on site with TPWD Wildland Fire Management Program staff.
In order to conduct a prescribed fire, a Burn Plan is put together by the Arboretum, HFD, and TPWD. It identifies the necessary weather and environmental conditions that must be met for a safe prescribed fire. It also outlines contingencies to protect nearby properties.
Prior to the burn, HFD will canvass adjacent neighborhoods with information, and the Arboretum will have signage on-site and literature available online.
During the prescribed fire, the impacted area will be closed to visitors. HFD will coordinate with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Houston Health Department to monitor air quality. Signs will be posted along nearby roadways indicating that there is a prescribed fire ahead.
The day of a prescribed fire, you may see smoke in the area of the Arboretum or on nearby roadways. You may also see HFD and Houston Police Department vehicles in the area. If you see smoke on the roadways, please reduce your speed, use headlights, pay attention to posted reduced speed limits, and refrain from calling 911.
The fire itself will only last for a few hours, however some smoldering may occur in the days following the burn. This is normal and all smoldering areas will be monitored by staff. After the fire, much of the area will appear blackened. Within a few weeks, visitors can expect to see lush green growth sprouting from the blackened area.
Visit the Texas Parks & Wildlife Wildland Fire Management website to learn more about how prescribed fires are planned and conducted.