|Rainfall shortage increases wildfire risks|
|Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor|
Oct. 2, 2004 -- Although county officials currently have no plans to enact a burn ban in the immediate future, Hopkins County residents should keep in mind the fact that the average rain count in Sulphur Springs alone for the year was more than 12 inches below normal as of Thursday.
Generally, Sulphur Springs has logged about 32.45 inches of rain for the year by the conclusion of September. So far this year, there has only been 20.33 inches of rain, and only 4.4 inches of rain falling from July through September.
During September, only 0.81 of an inch of rain was recorded, and only 0.26 of an inch during the last shower on Sept. 14, which accounts for the large number of grass fires occurring over the past month. Last year, firefighters responded to only 24 grass fires during September. This year, however, they responded to 51 grass fires and three controlled burns, and a significant number of those occurred in the last two weeks, according to sheriff's and fire reports.
While the area generally experiences an average of 6.49 inches of rain during the month of October, the most recent forecast makes the prospect of an amount of rain significant enough to combat the continually growing volume of grass fires seem unlikely.
As of Friday afternoon, Hopkins County averaged 661 on the Keetch-Bynum Drought Index, which ranks ground moisture on a scale of 0-800, with each 100 on the KBDI representing an inch into the ground that does not have moisture; hence a drought index of 0 represents no moisture depletion, and an index of 800 represents absolutely dry conditions. On Saturday morning, Hopkins County averaged 664 on the KBDI scale.
However, a small patch of the county, along the Franklin-Hopkins County line in southeastern Hopkins County ranked as high as 711 Friday and 713 Saturday on the scale while the least dry area ranked 612 Friday and 617 Saturday on the KBDI, which is maintained by Texas Forest Service, Spacial Sciences Lab and Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and is based on NEXRAD, AVHRR and National Weather Service data.
The 14-day outlook calls for Hopkins County to remain in the 600-700 range on the index. Areas in the 600-800 range face extreme fire dangers, such as stumps burning to the end of their roots under the ground and dead limbs on trees igniting from sparks.
Generally a burn ban, decided by county commissioner's court or an emergency order by a county judge, is not enacted until a county reaches the highest danger zone or the last ranking on the KBDI scale, which is the 700-800 severe drought range.
As of Thursday, only 30 Texas counties had enacted burn bans, with Bowie, Red River, Rockwall and Collin counties the closest counties to Hopkins in which burn bans have been ordered, according to TFS data.
According to the Forest Service web site, debris burning is the number one cause of fires in Texas. TFS put out a wildfire advisory on Sept. 22 for all of East Texas due to dry weather conditions and increased wildfire occurrence which includes grass fires. The summer's accumulation of vegetation provides heavy fuel for wildfire outbreaks.
"Most of the recent wildfires are the result of carelessness in burning of household trash, brush piles and other debris, and heavy accumulations of vegetation increases the likelihood of larger and more dangerous wildfires," Longview TFS Fire Behavior Analyst Brad Smith said.
The forest service is advising people to exercise extreme caution with all uses of fire outdoors.
"The use of fire breaks around all outdoor fires, including burn barrels, brush piles and campfires, would help prevent fires. According to the fire department contacts, most escaped 'control' fires had no fire breaks, or at best, poor fire breaks around them," Smith said.
A number of the grass fires in Hopkins County have also resulted from controlled burns that quickly spread beyond the property owner's resources for containment and extinguishment.
TFS has some suggestions to help reduce the risk of a trash, debris, brush and field burn getting out of control:
- When burning debris or trash, use an approved burn receptacle covered with metal mesh to keep burning material inside and establish a wide line down to bare soil around the receptacle.
- Burn only in a cleared area well away from overhead branches and wires to further minimize the chances of a burning embers igniting a wildfire. Then stay with the fire until it is out.
- Avoid burning trash containing aerosol cans which explode when heated, and could cause injury from projectile movement in addition to spreading burning trash.
- Avoid accumulating trash for several days in a burn receptacle where compacted trash burns longer and less completely, creating more air pollution and requiring more attention.
- Don't burn on windy days and always have water and equipment such as plows and field spray rigs available in case the control burn gets out of hand.
- Avoid burning when smoke from the fire will obscure highways or smoke up communities and downwind residences.
- Stay updated on weather changes, and keep debris piles small, gradually adding to the fires as they burn down to keep fire intensity lower and lessen the chances that material will spread into flammable vegetation.
TFS also suggests composting or mulching of leaves and branches as an alternative to burning.
Hopkins County Fire Administrator Carl Nix advises not to burn next to houses or other structures; never leave a fire unattended; call the sheriff's office to advise officials before burning large brush or grass piles, but be aware that fire crews will be sent to the area as a precaution if a fire is reported as appearing to be out of control; always keep a sufficient water source readily at hand to extinguish the fire; and contact the fire department or emergency officials immediately if a controlled burn begins getting out of hand.
Also, environmental and fire officials remind that only wood, brush or approved agriculturally related burning is allowed. Burning of other items such as tires, copper wiring and shingles can result in a fine.