SAN ANGELO, Texas -- Tom Lee said he remembers when a big fire was 6,000 acres.
"Things have changed," he said.
Lee, who ranches 10 miles north of San Angelo, said he's seen firefighting techniques improve and watched as people became more educated about that type of disaster.
At a meeting last month he and a handful of residents talked about simple measures landowners can take to help emergency responders -- keeping trees away from utility poles, having an adequate number of gates on a fence line, and knowing where heavy equipment and water wells are on their property.
"I should prepare as much as I can," Lee said, "and I see so many people who do not."
Once the flames from dozens of wildfires that raged in Texas settled last month, those affected by the fires were invited to a public meeting last month. Lee was one of several dozen men and women who came to ask questions of top Texas Forest Service officials and county officials.
They also shared their own experiences -- ranchers worrying about grass their livestock need to survive, local firefighters finding homes they didn't know existed before the fires, and people from all walks talking about improving communication.
Texas Forest Service Director Tom Boggus and Mark Stanford, chief of fire operations, sat down with local emergency responders to hear their concerns and talk about what comes next.
Boggus said a unified command is one approach the Forest Service is working toward -- one where communication between local residents and departments and U.S. officials called to assist is stronger.
Mark Sides, fire chief with Robert Lee Volunteer Fire Department, agreed.
He suggested U.S. Forrest Service firefighters be split into shifts that cover a 24-hour period instead of working those resources in a single shift and leaving when night fell.
Because of the size and severity of the recent fires, radio equipment also posed a problem.
"We weren't able to get distance out of them," Sides said. "And as weather conditions degraded -- as the smoke got thicker during the day and winds picked up -- the connection was lost."
Personal cellphones were pulled out, but that presented problems since not all rural areas could get clear reception. Sides said firefighters resorted to climbing on top of fire trucks and hoping they could reach a tower.
Boggus said the practice of split shifts Sides suggested has been used before in other fires and will be taken into consideration in the future.
Steve Sturtz, Tom Green County extension agent, said he is compiling maps and spreadsheets of land information -- who owns, operates or leases ranch land and how to get in touch with them in case of an emergency.
Before an emergency arises again -- whether fire or tornado -- the plan is to have contacts at his fingertips.
During the Wildcat Fire, Sturtz would listen to a morning briefing, and before any evacuations were announced, would visit houses that looked to be in the line of fire. With emergency management coordinator Ron Perry and Tom Green County sheriff Capt. Steve Mild, he would start making calls to identify ranch and livestock owners and warn them of the oncoming flames.
"I think we did a real good job," he said, "but at the same time if I had that (list) it would have made the job a lot quicker and more efficient."
He said the extension office also is planning on holding an educational lecture this month on prevention techniques landowners can use to protect their homes.
Constructing a 30- to 50-foot cleared space around what they want protected, irrigating certain areas and using less flammable roofing and siding are ways to help protect houses, Sturtz said.
Lee, who believes in taking responsibility for his own land, said he wants to cooperate as much as possible with the Forest Service to make it easier on everyone to fight another fire. He said the reason the area saw minimal livestock loss, and no loss of life, comes in part from the service listening to suggestions and putting new practices in place.
"Now, compared to then, they're tenfold better," Lee said. "Over the past few months they've had 300 times more experience."
(Jennifer Rios is a reporter for the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas, at www.texaswest.com.)