County issues burn ban, rewrites comp time policy
Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor

June 26, 2006 - Hopkins County has been declared in a state of disaster, necessitating a ban on outdoor burning and restrictions on the discharge of certain types of fireworks, Hopkins County Commissioners Court determined Monday morning.

The lack of any rainfall at all in some areas of the county over the weekend and a surge in grass fires and timber  fires, particularly along Interstate 30 and in pastures were cited as causes for implementing both the disaster declaration and prohibition of outdoor burning.

From June 1 through June 26, county and volunteer fire departments responded to 84 calls for service for brush, grass or timber fires. Of those, only four were caused by trash being burned. The rest were determined to be accidental, according to Hopkins County Fire Chief Carl Nix. 

Precinct 4 Commissioner Danny Evans reported that drought conditions are getting "real bad" in his precinct.

"We had no rainfall at all from Birthright to Cumby," Evans said. "I've had a number of calls voicing concerns on conditions."

"Some parts of the county received between five-tenths to two inches of rainfall," Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap said. "It was so sporadic we feel like implementing the order is in the public's best interests."

The ban stipulates that anyone caught burning "any combustible material other than the use of gas, charcoal grills or wood smokers, or orders such burning by others" in any unincorporated area of the county will be in violation of the burn ban.

A violation of the prohibition on outdoor burning will be punished as a Class C misdemeanor.

With no significant rainfall to offset drought conditions across the entirety of the county and none in the immediate forecast, commissioners put the burn ban effect as a preventative measure.

The court did make one exception to the outdoor burning order, allowing crews clearing new right of ways or roadways, which would include work on the FM 1870 bypass and the State Highway 11 overpass project, according to Millsap. No permits for burning will be administered this year, and the ban on outdoor burning will remain in place until a significant amount of rainfall is receive to offer some relief from drought conditions.

By declaring a state of disaster due to dry, drought conditions, Millsap will be able to submit a request to the governor's office requesting drought relief assistance for farmers and ranchers already feeling the effects of the dry conditions. A number of area farmers and dairymen are already having to have hay shipped from states as far away as Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Millsap said he also plans to meet with congressman Ralph while in Washington next month to lobby Congress for additional funding and services to help those farmers with costs associated with the drought.

The county joined at least 102 other counties including neighboring Franklin, Wood and Rains counties, across the state which have implemented fireworks restrictions. It also joins 132 other counties who have issued burn bans, including Franklin and Hunt counties. 

While the county cannot prohibit selling of fireworks, they did restrict the use of aerial fireworks such as "skyrockets with sticks" and "missiles with fins."

In other business Monday, the commissioners amended the county's overtime compensation policy restricting the number of overtime hours a county employee is allowed to accumulate to 40 hours. The policy was also amended to include fire department personnel as well as law enforcement officers. The county will also have the option to "buy back" employee compensation time not used by paying the employee for that time at the employee's current regular rate of pay.

The policy was changed after it was brought to the commissioner's court's attention that some employees had as much as 148 hours of comp time built up, with the total estimate for just the sheriff's department totaling about $151,000 should the county pay off all of the owed overtime compensation. The policy became effective immediately.

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