Wildfires a concern in midst of winter drought in Central Texas

Drought and potential wildfires should be year-round concerns, even in the middle of winter, according to county and state fire officials.

“It’s always a good idea to be mindful and cautious when it comes to fire, regardless of the season,” said Megan Radke, a Texas A&M Forest Service wildland urban interface specialist. “Even though temperatures are cooler now than they were in the summer months, when fire danger is highest, conditions in Central Texas and the Hill Country are still extremely dry as evident by the drought declaration.”

Radke is referring to Governor Greg Abbott’s state of disaster declaration due to “exceptional drought conditions” in December for 15 counties, including Burnet and Llano counties. On January 3, the governor added three more counties, including Williamson County.

The governor’s declaration states “drought conditions pose an imminent threat to public health, property, and the economy.”

Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery said the declaration makes state assets more accessible to the county if they are needed. Mostly, he pointed out, it’s a reminder of how dry conditions are.

“On the KBDI, which is a drought index, Burnet County was at 606 yesterday (January 7). The index goes from zero to 800 with the higher numbers meaning the drier the conditions,” the commissioner said.

KBDI for Texas in January 2020
The Texas A&M Forest Service’s drought indicator shows Burnet and Llano counties are experiencing very dry conditions. In December, Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for several Texas counties, including Burnet and Llano counties. County and fire officials are asking residents to be mindful of the dry conditions, especially when winds are up. While some rain is expected over the weekend, it probably will not have an effect on drought conditions. Illustration courtesy of Texas A&M Forest Service

KBDI stands for Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which is used to determine wildfire potential.

“It started out last year with some good rains, but that hasn’t lasted,” Dockery added. “We’re six inches shy of where we should be when it comes to rainfall. It’s nice to get these two-tenths-of-an-inch rains, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

The commissioner pointed out that a small amount of rainfall can bring some immediate relief, but, once winds pick back up and the humidity drops, dead grasses and brush dry out and become fuel for wildfires.

Radke concurred, especially when fronts don’t bring any rain at all.

“Those dry conditions combined with dry cold fronts that are often accompanied by high winds further dry out fuels such as grasses, trees, and brush,” she said. “Additionally, when stronger fronts are present and freezes occur through the region, more grasses die.

“Obviously, dead grasses are very dry,” Radke added. “These dry fuels require significantly more rain than just a small shower to increase their moisture levels.”

The key, both Dockery and Radke said, is prevention.

Some of Radke’s suggestions include:

  • not burning brush or debris
  • making sure trailer chains are secured so they don’t drag on the road and trigger sparks
  • being mindful of sparks while welding or during similar activities
  • being cautious when using equipment, even lawn mowers, that can strike a rock and throw sparks
  • not building campfires
  • making sure embers from barbecue grills do not blow into dry, grassy areas

Burnet and Llano counties aren’t currently under burn bans, but residents should use caution while burning outdoors.

Dockery placed a burn ban on the agenda for discussion during the Burnet County Commissioners Court meeting January 14.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some rain and it will be enough that we won’t have to discuss a ban,” he added.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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