Special Report: Fort Davis Revisited Part II

by Victor Lopez
NewsWest 9

FORT DAVIS - Last year, the Rock House fire in Jeff Davis County became the third largest wildfire in Texas history. But that wasn't the only devastating fire in the area and even more land was burned, other than just around the city of Fort Davis.

In part two of his special report, Victor Lopez traveled to a place many people don't know exists but was hit equally hard by fire.

Chris Pipes is the project director for the Davis Mountain Preserve. He took our cameras into areas few people get to see to talk about why the preserve is there and for a first-hand look at the damage and the recovery after the Rock House fire and another fire.

"Right now, we're standing on a property, owned by The Nature Conservancy, called The Davis Mountains Preserve. It's about 33,000 acres in the highest part of the Davis Mountains. It's here to protect the unique bio-diversity, characteristic, of these mountains. Last year we had two big fires in the area, the Rock House Fire in April, 314 thousand plus acres in the mountains. In June, we had the Tejano Canyon Fire, about 12,500 acres. You can see that a lot of stuff on the ground is still black and a lot of the trees are, not necessarily torched, but they're heat killed. A lot of these big Ponderosas, some of them are probably dead and are not going to come back, especially if these drought conditions persist," Pipes said.

Unless you live in the area, you may not know that, in 2011, 53 fires broke out in Jeff Davis County. In all, over 335,000 acres were burned. The Rock House and Tejano Canyon Fires combined to burn 2/3 of the 33,000 acres that make up the Davis Mountain Preserve.

"It's going to take a while for it to completely come back to where it was. Some things won't (come back). It's that simple," County Emergency Management Coordinator, Bart Medley, said.

"We won't see a big tree, in that spot again, in our lifetimes. Some of these trees are 50 to 100 years old, the big Ponderosas," Pipes added.

As strange as it sounds, the fires up in the conservancy weren't all bad. If you can find a silver lining to last year's events, pipes says, the fire is actually good for the ecology.

"This landscape evolved with fire. Mother Nature and the good Lord, as you prefer, intended that this landscape burn, occasionally. Under natural conditions, we wouldn't have as many small and medium sized trees, as you see here. Normally, where we're standing now, would be an ecology called Mountain Savanah, which would be a lot of big trees, widely spaced, with this grassy, herbaceous under story beneath."

The difference in the underbrush that Chris was talking about, is best described on either side a road going through the conservancy. On one side, you can see it's not as big, tall and thick and it's actually starting to come back up and the black areas are all gone. But, if you take a few steps to the right, you can see, pretty much, what it looked, before the fire started in April.

But over the years, the conservancy is seeing an overabundance of trees that Pipes says they would rather not see, so much of, mainly because of their negative impact.

"They are, all, competing for 20 or so inches of rainfall, a year and they're all under moisture stress. They're really under moisture stress now, because we're not getting that 20 inches of rain we should have," Pipes said.

The reminders that Texas is still in the grips of the worst drought on record are everywhere. Not to mention the knowledge that, they're not out of the woods yet.

According to Medley, "It's still extremely dry. Conditions are still as dangerous as they can be for another fire of some kind. Until Mother Nature corrects this drought, we're still going to be in a danger zone."

"A lot of people ask me, how long before the landscape recovers?  In terms of this herbaceous under story, it's pretty sparse right here, but we've had about 5, 6, 7 inches of rain up here, at these high elevations, since the fires," Pipes added. 

While fire is good for the preserve, Pipes says statistically and based on the odds, it would be impossible to have another fire and have it burn, just there.

"We really empathize with our neighbors, especially folks down in town. The economic loss was so great to our neighbors that even though the fire was ecologically good for the landscape, if we could wave our magic wand, we would prefer that it had not happened at all."

The preserve is open to the public once a month from March through October as well as the first two Saturdays in December for folks to go out and chop down their own Christmas tree.