Habitat & Conservation  |  06/21/2024



Devastation and Hope in the Texas Panhandle

By Tavin Dotson

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, forever marked in Texas history, carved a path of destruction across more than 1 million acres in a matter of days. The fire was the largest wildfire in Texas history and the second largest in U.S history. This mega-fire, along with four other wildfires, started on Feb. 26, 2024, in the Texas Panhandle. These fast-moving infernos (consuming more than a football field of land per second) dealt a severe blow to local communities, ranches, and bobwhite quail habitat. However, amidst the charred landscape, signs of hope emerge, nurtured by nature’s resilience and the proactive efforts of organizations like Quail Forever.

Understanding the wildfire is crucial for comprehending the potential for recovery. Despite persistent drought conditions plaguing the panhandle, the region received above-average rainfall in the spring of 2023. This resulted in an abundance of tall grasses that flourished but dried out as the drought returned. These dry grasses, coupled with the lack of moisture, created a perfect fuel source for the wildfires.

Unlike slow-burning fires that consume nearly everything in their path, these wildfires, especially the Smokehouse Creek Fire, were ferocious beasts, racing across the land with high sustained wind speeds. This distinction holds significance for wildlife. While the fires undoubtedly scorched the tops of grasses and brush, leaving a blackened expanse, a hidden blessing lies beneath the ash - the root systems of the native plants.

Thankfully, the soil where grass roots reside often escapes a fire’s full intensity. With their root systems largely intact, the native grasses have the potential to rebound swiftly, especially with the arrival of much-needed moisture (both rain and snow events occurred while the recent wildfires were ongoing). Less than a month after the fires, reports of vegetation green-up amid the ashcovered earth serve as a testament to nature’s resilience.

While the above-ground habitat undeniably suffered, the impact on wildlife populations isn’t entirely clear. Deep draws, creeks, and areas with denser vegetation that were less exposed to the fire’s full force served as safe havens for quail and other wildlife. Though many animals perished in the fire, others undoubtedly found refuge in these unburnt havens. These areas, with their lush vegetation protected from the flames, provided critical cover and food sources during and after the fire’s rampage. However, the full extent of the wildlife mortality requires further assessment.

Recognizing the longterm consequences for quail populations, Quail Forever has reached out to impacted landowners. These meetings go beyond sharing our sympathy; they’re a platform for imparting technical guidance on post-fire habitat restoration. We understand the anxieties and uncertainties landowners face and are committed to providing them with the tools and knowledge necessary to navigate these challenging times.

ducks flying in wetlands
This satellite image shows the immense burn scar left behind from the Smokehouse Creek fire.

One key recommendation is deferred grazing, which allows native grasses time to regrow and establish strong root systems. This benefits not only the land itself, preventing erosion and promoting healthy soil development, but also the quail population by providing food and cover. Additionally, for pastures impacted by slower burning fires where root damage may have occurred, or in cases where expediting restoration is necessary, native plant seeding might be recommended.

Quail Forever can assist landowners with selecting the most appropriate seed mixes for their land and provide proper planting techniques for successful regrowth. Quail Forever is also helping connect landowners with funding opportunities following the wildfires so they can get their operations up and going again. This might include assistance with fence and structure replacement or repair, as well as potential funding for upland bird habitat reseeding projects. We are committed to supporting these individuals as they work to rebuild their land and restore wildlife habitat.

One example of these postfire partnerships is with BOOM Adventures, a hunting organization passionate about wildlife habitat and veteran hunting experiences. Their ranch, the very foundation of their mission, was in the fire’s direct path. Undeterred, and showcasing their commitment to the land and our veterans, BOOM Adventures reached out to Quail Forever for technical guidance and potential funding. Now work is underway to restore habitat at the ranch. This proactive approach exemplifies the spirit of collaboration needed to restore the Texas Panhandle.

Another example is the small town of Borger, Texas. Following the destructive Amarillo Complex Fires of 2006, the city council began creating a fire preparedness plan which included a program for strategic prescribed burns. This commitment played a crucial role in minimizing damage from this year’s Windy Deuce Fire.

Considering prevailing winds, Borger conducted a prescribed burn along a 7-mile swathe (about 150ft wide) of land bordering the town in Nov. of 2023. When the Windy Deuce Fire approached, it encountered this strategically burned area. The lack of combustible material acted as a firebreak, stopping the wildfire in its tracks.

This success story underscores the importance of proactive land management practices like prescribed burns. By strategically reducing potential fuel sources, Borger lessened the intensity of the wildfire and prevented it from reaching catastrophic proportions.

The road to recovery in the Texas Panhandle will undoubtedly take multiple years, but a beacon of hope shines brightly. The combined efforts of Quail Forever, determined landowners, organizations like BOOM Adventures, and the forwardthinking town of Borger, along with the region’s unwavering resilience, offer a powerful opportunity for healing.

By implementing smart management practices, capitalizing on natural regeneration, and fostering collaboration, we can transform the scorched landscape of the panhandle back into a haven for wildlife, including the iconic bobwhite quail.

Tavin Dotson is the Quail Forever Coordinating Wildlife Biologist in Texas.

This story originally appeared in the 2024 Summer Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!