More East Texas areas turning to burn bans to douse the flames
BY TIM MONZINGOtmonzingo@tylerpaper.com
Texas is turning red again.
That's at least according to the Texas Forest Service's burn ban map as of Tuesday, which shows 140 of the state's 254 counties painted in red to signify burn bans.
Counties across East Texas are reporting numerous small brush fires breaking out, requiring multiple departments and even the Texas Forest Service to come in and control the flames.
It was such a grass fire Tuesday on Henderson's County Road 2831 that consumed more than 100 bales of hay, Texas Forest Service Fire Dispatcher Gerry Haverland said.
"The potential (for wildfires) is pretty high right now," he said. "We need to start being very careful."
That mentality pushed Texas counties to begin restricting burning, among them Van Zandt, Anderson and Henderson counties. Wood County commissioners are expected to consider a burn ban at the meeting on Friday, according to their agenda.
According to the service, since Jan. 1 this year, 58,329 acres have burned in the state. Last year, Texas set a record as 3,993,716 acres were consumed by flames, according to the service.
"The only way to keep this from happening is for people to be careful," he said of avoiding a crisis like what the state faced in 2011.
Smith County First Assistant Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson said a ban for the county is imminent.
As of Tuesday, the Keetch-Byram Drought Index gave the county an undesirable score of 649. The index rates the fire danger on a scale of zero to 800, with 800 meaning an area is extremely dry and there is a high likelihood of forest fires.
As the county's rating inches closer to the high end of the scale, the likelihood of a burn ban being enacted increases.
"Anytime we get close to 700, we'll put (a burn ban) on," she said. "The possibility of us going under one in the next week or two if we don't get a substantial amount of rain I feel like is very positive."
For the month, she said her office responded to between 15 and 20 grass fires in the county, though there have been several small fires to which fire marshals were not called.
Though a ban is not in place, she said if a brush fire is left unattended, a fire department will come extinguish the blaze as a precaution. Burn piles should only include brush and need to be at least 300 feet from occupied structures, she said.
National Weather Service Forecaster Marty Mayeaux said a rash of small fires is not uncommon this time of year, when the state is in its hottest, driest period.
To date, he said 21 inches of rain have fallen at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport for the year. That's six inches below normal.
For the month, Tyler received less than half of what it normally gets, he said, having recorded only .04 inches of rain. Typically by this point in August, an inch of rain has fallen, he said.
High humidity and a wet winter, spring and early summer have kept the grasses and brush moist enough to avert the tinder-box situation that contributed so much to last year's fires, he said.
"Compared to last year, we're doing pretty well," he said.
This week, storm systems moving over the area could bring needed relief. Rain is at least a 20 percent possibility through the weekend. Chances jump up Friday afternoon to 50 percent, according to the service's forecast.
But fire officials aren't hedging their bets.
Van Zandt County Fire Marshal Charles Allen said he expects a fire season as bad as last year.
"It's going to take everybody pulling together, pulling resources together, to effectively manage this wildfire season," he said. "I think we're going to have another 2011. I can't help but think it."
Van Zandt County departments have averaged about six to seven brush fire calls a day, he said.
Despite their concerns, both Marshal McCoy-Wasson and Allen said they feel their departments are ready to step up again if necessary.
"I think they're all really prepared," she said. "We've all been on a heads up thinking each fire could possibly turn out like it was last year."