Fire Prevention Services supports wildland fire mitigation at McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory (MCD), a unit of the College of Natural Sciences, is home to three large, international research telescopes, provides graduate and undergraduate education, welcomes approximately 60,000 visitors annually for star parties and exhibits, and hosts continuing education programs for teachers. The observatory is located on approximately 400 acres in the Davis Mountains of Southwest Texas where significant wildland fires have taken place on adjacent lands. MCD has not yet experienced a major wildland fire on its campus, and the College of Natural Sciences, which has project authority for wildland fire mitigation, is collaborating with FAS Fire Prevention Services (FPS) and other partners to keep it that way.

Waymon Jackson, FPS director and the university’s fire marshal, explained that the role of FPS in protecting MCD includes overall planning for the mitigation of wildland fire. A holistic MCD wildfire protection plan launched in 2018 when the university contracted with the Texas Forest Service (Texas A&M Forest Service) to reduce vegetation that can fuel wildland fires on approximately 95 acres.

“The objective of this project is to thin out dense tree stands, reduce surface fuels and fuels that enable fire to move upward and remove highly flammable vegetation,” Jackson said. “Although this project will not completely eliminate the fuel load on the McDonald Observatory site, it will reduce enough vegetation to lessen the severity of possible future wildland fires and make those fires more easily managed.” 

Jackson said that this project is a multi-year endeavor in which FPS works with wildland consultants to support the wildland fire mitigation efforts while not interfering with the mission of MCD.

“The role of FPS is important to mediating between the wildland fire mitigation work by the wildland fire experts and the research needs of the McDonald Observatory scientist,” Jackson said. “In addition, FPS has provided financial support for the fire mitigation program, which is crucial to maintaining fire mitigation efforts and preventing regrowth in previously cut areas.”

MCD Superintendent Teznie Pugh stated that in the latest project, Texas A&M Forest Service staff have removed potential fuels from the slopes of one of two mountains on the MCD campus.

“They have removed trees and bushes on the slopes below our largest and newest telescope, the 10-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope located on the summit of Mt. Fowlkes, without compromising the wildland environment that makes the Observatory campus feel so special,” Pugh said. “Further work remains to be done on our second summit, Mt. Locke, and in the lower elevation areas around our residential units.”

Matt O’Toole, director of Land Resources for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is a partner in this project, noted that teamwork and a long-term vision toward sustainability are required.

“The efforts at the iconic site of MCD represent one example of many opportunities across the university land portfolio,” O’Toole said. “These efforts are not only necessary for staff and infrastructure protection, but also an opportunity to promote the concept of resilient landscapes in disturbance-prone ecosystems. No single entity within the university possesses the full skill set to implement a project like this.” 

Jackson pointed out that this project is only one part of a comprehensive effort to provide an additional degree of life safety for residents and to protect the physical assets at MCD. FPS continually assesses the unique needs of fire prevention indoors at MCD as well as on the surrounding 400 acres. 

“A firewater distribution system is being installed to provide 1,000 gallons per minute of firewater for two hours to Mt. Fowlkes and Mt. Locke,” Jackson said. “We also intend to bolster the in-building early warning fire alarm systems and add structural fire suppression systems to provide life safety and property protection from internal fire hazards. We are also increasing the water supply to critical structures to protect against both internal and external fire hazards.”

Cutting trees at McDonald Observatory
Kari Hines, Texas Forest Service Program coordinator, removes dead and diseased plant material, reduces overall canopy and breaks continuous fuels between grass and remaining tree canopy.  Credit: Texas A&M Forest Service
May 21, 2021