Commissioners: Dry forecast keeping Smith County burn ban in place

Published on Tuesday, 27 August 2013 19:15 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL


With persistent heat and no significant rain in the forecast, Smith County commissioners extended the countywide burn ban until further court action.

County Judge Joel Baker said the lack of significant rain in the forecast, wind and risk factors related to arid conditions initiated his implementation of the burn ban last Thursday.

Determining the need for a burn ban depends on several variables, including the Keetch-Byram Drought Index and the number of grassfires difficult to contain. The drought index measures moisture in vegetation that could act as fuel for fires.

The index ranges from zero to 800, zero being under water and 800 being extremely arid, combustible conditions. Once the index reaches 600, fire officials begin to look at other variables and consider taking action.

Baker said the index reached 678 Tuesday. He noted that while all open flames are restricted, Labor Day cookouts are still allowed when using proper grilling equipment. Gas or charcoal grills must have lids to cover flames.

Public fireworks displays will also be allowed, he said.

“I know it’s a holiday and we want everyone to grill and enjoy traditional activities, but we want them to be cautious,” he said.

On Sept. 5, 2001, five Smith County homes and a timber company burned after embers from a grill ignited grass and quickly spread.

Fire Marshal Jim Seaton said he believes the 2011 drought and subsequent fires educated the public about the dangers of burning amid arid conditions, especially on windy days. On Tuesday morning, Seaton said rural fire departments were called to put out four controlled burns but that call volumes have been relatively low following the burn ban.

“We’ll continue to get the word out, but it seems like people know conditions are dry and that may have to do with what happened in 2011,” Seaton said. “We just ask that people exercise caution.”

Around half the state is under burn bans, Seaton said.

John Adams, chief meteorologist with KYTX CBS 19, said Tyler is a little more than 9 inches below expected rainfall for the year. He said arid conditions are expected over the next week with little relief in sight.

By fall, the area has around a 30 percent chance of receiving higher than average rainfall, he said.

The Texas A&M Forest Service circulated burn ban flags to fly over all volunteer departments in Smith County while the ban is in effect, Seaton said. Seaton said 250 yard signs reading, “Burn Ban in Effect” will be circulated to educate resident around the county soon.

Typically a burn ban means more calls, Arp Fire Chief Mac Arnold said, and more false alarms. Arnold said

Emergency Services District No. 2 board members discussed possible budget transfers that may be necessary to cover additional fuel costs associated with higher call volumes during its Monday meeting.

Entering a burn ban can cause negative "trickle down effects" around the county, including public health concerns.

Many rural residents burn their trash, he said, and the pile-up can lead to environmental and health problems for a community. Work, such as outdoor welding, bailing hay and mowing also becomes a concern because sparks can ignite dry grass.

Seaton said all fire stations are on alert but reiterated the first line of defense is practicing preventative caution.