VIDEO: Officials lift burn ban, caution still advised

Published on Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:10 - Written by

By ADAM RUSSELL, arussell@tylerpaper.com

The monthlong countywide burn ban ended Tuesday with a Smith County commissioners vote.

But an unattended brush fire, which erupted just hours later and required emergency response, had officials preaching caution.

County Judge Joel Baker said last week’s rains reduced the threat of wildfire outbreaks around the county, but he recommended residents remain vigilant when burning and reminded them to keep water or other fire suppression tools available to contain flames.

“The rain has been a good thing and I don’t see the need to continue the burn ban,” he said before court members unanimously approved allowing controlled burns.

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.

The index reached 678 when the court initiated the burn ban Aug. 23. The index rose above 700 before the weekend rain.

County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton said Monday’s Keetch-Byram Drought Index was 299.

Seaton said the index number is an average and that portions of the county, especially in southwestern portions near Arp, Overton and Troup, remain above 500. He said the rains could give residents a few weeks to a month relief without more precipitation.

Dead grasses and vegetation associated with oncoming winter months could mean commissioners reassess the situation if drought conditions persist, he said.

Fires are not permitted in Smith County when wind conditions exceed 21 mph, Seaton said.

“We still want people to exercise caution and common sense,” Seaton said. “Keep water nearby, and flames should be attended.”

Firefighters from Chapel Hill Volunteer Fire Department responded to a grass fire hours after the ban was lifted. Firefighter Dale Ackers said a resident was ticketed for “reckless destruction of property” after brush fires escaped containment and crossed onto another property.

Assistant Fire Marshal Connie Wasson said eight large brush piles were set on fire on the property and were being attended by two people without water or other firefighting equipment. She said flames “barely” crossed onto the other property but that thick smoke from the blazes filled the neighbor’s nearby home.

Ms. Wasson said she wrote the citation, which can be up to a $500 fine.

“If they had had a water source and more people with other heavy equipment to contain the fires, it would have been different, but it was clearly very irresponsible,” she said.

Gerry Haverland, a Texas A&M Forest Service dispatcher, said Cherokee, Rusk, Anderson, Gregg, Upshur, Van Zandt, Henderson and Wood counties also have lifted burn bans.