Ecology of forested windbreaks and woodland vegetation and their concomitant impact on wildfire behavior, suppression, and containment.
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Historical documents suggest that much of the area of the Texas High Plains supported shortgrass prairie vegetation, as well as abundant woody vegetation (cottonwood and mesquite) along watercourses (Wester 2007). Changes in fire regime, increased agricultural activity, and modern fire suppression have produced dramatic changes in vegetation. The result has been a gradual expansion of woody vegetation and slow replacement of native grasslands (van Auken 2000). This change in vegetation, coupled with modeled changes in climate, will result in higher wildfire hazard, more common large fires, longer duration fire seasons in spring and autumn, and increased fire severity over the next fifty years (Stanturf and Goodrick, 2013).Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) has been promoting the establishment of windbreaks in the Texas Panhandle for over 40 years. Well designed and installed windbreaks have the ability to reduce wind speed on both the leeward and windward sides of the windbreak, moderating the microclimate and creating desirable conditions for growing crops (Brandle, 2002). These vegetated systems also function to maintain soil quality, improve livestock health, sequester carbon, and provide habitat for wildlife (Wight, 2002).According to TFS data, 93 percent of the largest wildfires in Texas history have occurred over the last twenty years in the Panhandle and West Texas, burning approximately 4 million acres. Most of these major events have been associated with the Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak phenomenon in which a unique set of weather conditions result in massive and destructive fires called firestorms (Lindley, 2014). During these firestorms, the only practical action to take is to get people out of the harm's way.Wildland firefighters have long shared anecdotal evidence that windbreaks, riparian areas, and other woodland vegetation can slow rapidly spreading wildfires, providing a vital opportunity for evacuation or containment. In addition, preemptive management activities that enhance health and composition of windbreaks and riparian areas may help speed fire containment, reduce property damages, and enhance firefighter safety. Understanding the science behind the role woodland vegetation plays in wildfire behavior, suppression, and containment and quantifying its impact is critical to wildland fire management in the High Plains. In addition, the ecosystem service that windbreaks provide towards wildfire control, containment, and mitigation certainly has significant economic benefit to the region and addresses M-S high priority issue #2 - Forest Ecosystem Services. This project supports the major components of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and the results of this work will provide management guidelines and economic assessments that will strengthen strategic partnerships with landowners, land managers, and first responders to further enhance overall program effectiveness and support.