Texas 4-H center, Texas A&M Forest Service collaborate to improve facility safety

LAKE BROWNWOOD – The Texas 4-H Conference Center at Lake Brownwood is now an even safer place to visit and hold events thanks to Texas A&M Forest Service, said center director Mark Carroll.

Carroll said the center, which is run by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, is a 78-acre site on Lake Brownwood that hosts a variety of events from summer camps to family reunions.

“Almost 300 people can possibly be housed on the grounds at any given time,” Carroll said. “Given the size of the facility and its buildings, plus the number of people who might be onsite at any time, the potential for property damage and personal injury from a potential wildfire could be great.”

Carroll said about three years ago a small fire started at the facility’s wastewater plant. Although the fire was spotted quickly and put out by the local fire department, he said it demonstrated the need to take additional efforts to protect the facility from fire danger.

A Texas 4-H Conference Center building before fire mitigation efforts by  Texas A&M Forest Service. (Texas A&M Forest Service photo by Philip)

A Texas 4-H Conference Center building and surrounding area before fire mitigation efforts by Texas A&M Forest Service. (Texas A&M Forest Service photo by Philip Truitt)

The opportunity to improve fire safety at the center came recently, when Carroll heard from an administrative assistant at the center about a fire prevention and mitigation program offered by Texas A&M Forest Service. Following that lead, Carroll contacted Stacy Harvick, an agency wildland urban interface specialist in Merkel, along with the local agency office in Brownwood.

“This fuels-reduction project dramatically increases the chances of an area withstanding a wildfire,” said Andy McCrady, the agency’s fuels coordinator in Lufkin who oversees the agency’s hazardous fuel mitigation program. “We assess the condition of the property and the condition of the fuels on that property, including those surrounding any structures. We also assess the ability for firefighters to access that property in the event of a fire. Mitigation efforts include things like clearing foliage to create a shaded fuel break, removing dead trees and getting rid of trees and brush near buildings in order to create a defensible space.”

McCrady said the 4-H center didn’t have the funds needed to hire private individuals to make a wildfire assessment, but the agency was still able to help them through their mitigation program.

“We conduct assessments for both private landowners and for public lands where there may be a threat from wildfire,” McCrady explained. “If private landowners feel there’s a possible wildfire threat to their property, they can contact the Texas Forest Service and our specialists or someone trained by our specialists – such as a professional from a local fire department — will come out and conduct a risk assessment for them. Then the landowner can hire people to make any fire mitigation changes.

“If it’s a wildfire threat to public land, we will do the assessment and may also be able to supply the necessary manpower to treat foliage and make other alterations to reduce the fire danger.”

The same building after the Texas A&M Forest Service cleared excess foliage from around the area. (Texas A&M Forest Service photo)

The same building and surrounding area after the agency cleared excess foliage and created a defensible space. (Texas A&M Forest Service photo by Philip Truitt)

A crew from the agency’s task force in Brownwood worked for about a week and a half to make fire mitigation changes on center grounds. The crew and center personnel worked together to clear large areas around buildings and around the entrance and exit road to the facility, as well as clearing brush on the way to the pavilion, which is located on the lake side of the property.

“Having defensible space around the buildings allows wildland firefighters a safe way to protect structures from an oncoming wildfire,” explained Harvick, who helped assess the center’s wildfire danger. “Shaded fuel breaks can slow down a wildfire’s advance by reducing the intensity of the wildfire that contributes to dangerous firebrands and prevents firefighters from controlling the fire. All of these things are crucial when a wildfire occurs.”

Texas A&M Fire Service employees with chainsaws removed brush up to 6 feet tall to create a shaded fuel break along the road leading into and away from the facility. They also removed dead trees and brush next to buildings to create defensible space. Excess trees and brush were mulched, with the mulch being saved for reuse on the center’s rope course feature.

“The total area that was treated on the property was 2 acres, but this small area now helps protect the entire site, which has more than $6.5 million in property and structures, as well as the people who work at and visit the facility,” Harvick said.

Carroll said he is grateful for the help and feels the center has a much better chance of surviving a wildfire should one occur in that area.

“We were glad we could help treat the vegetation around the buildings and in other parts of the 4-H center,” McCrady said. “In addition to helping keep the center safer from wildfire, it also gave us the opportunity to showcase how anyone can do an in-the-field reduction of wildfire hazard.”


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