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Dry conditions keep firefighters on alert; rain in forecast

Texas KBDI map for March 29, 2022

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index rating for each county is indicated by color on this map provided by the Texas A&M Forest Service. Courtesy image

Burnet County firefighters have their water trucks full and equipment fueled and on standby around the clock as the National Weather Service issues daily red flag warnings for Central Texas, including in Burnet and Llano counties. 

And Herb Darling, head of Burnet County’s Development Department, is keeping his eye on the KBDI rating for the area. 

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index is used to determine the level of fire restrictions. Both Burnet and Llano counties are under burn bans, but more might need to be done if conditions worsen. 

“The county KBDI rating has not reached the point for the (county) judge to declare an emergency, which could prohibit all outdoor burning to include welding or any type of outdoor activity that might create a spark,” Darling said. 

The drought index was developed in 1968 to assess fire potential during prolonged dry weather conditions. Each of the four levels is assigned a number ranging from 0 to 800 that represents soil and large class fuel moisture:

  • 0-200 — soil and large class fuel moisture are high and do not contribute to fire intensity; typical of spring dormant season following winter precipitation
  • 200-400 — lower litter and duff layers are drying and beginning to contribute to fire intensity; typical of late spring, early growing season
  • 400-600 — lower litter and duff layers actively contribute to fire intensity and will actively burn; typical of late summer
  • 600-800 — even live fuels can be expected to burn with intense deep fires and significant downwind spotting; associated with more severe drought and increased wildfire occurrence

Fuel moisture is a measure of the amount of water in vegetation that could potentially become fuel for a fire. Large class refers to the size of vegetation, including downed trees. Litter is material on the surface that has not begun to decay. Duff is the decayed and decaying organic materials below the litter level and above the mineral soil. 

According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, as of March 29, the KBDI rating for Burnet and Llano counties is in the 400-600 range. Both counties are under burn bans, which prohibit controlled burns. An emergency declaration by a county judge would include a ban on welding and any kind of work activity that could possibly cause sparks. 

“We are asking people to really keep an eye out on what’s going on,” said Gilbert Bennett, Emergency Management coordinator for Llano County. “Call 911 (if you spot a fire). Don’t assume anyone else did and don’t wait. The quicker we can respond, the quicker we can put it out.”

That is exactly what happened at about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday on U.S. 281 in Marble Falls. Dispatch got at least two calls regarding a fire that popped up out of nowhere on the east side of the road just north of Walmart. 

Fire engines arrived within quickly as workers from the Long John Silver’s seafood restaurant used the store’s fire extinguishers to douse the nascent flames. Firefighters contained the area within minutes.

Some respite could be coming, according to the National Weather Service forecast. A system is expected to bring showers and thunderstorms Tuesday night into early Wednesday. Some storms could be strong to severe with large hail and damaging wind gusts. 

If lightning strikes start a fire in Burnet or Llano counties, firefighters will be ready. Assets, including Forest Service bulldozers and fire engines, are spread evenly across the area, Darling said.

“Burnet County is blessed to have the paid and volunteer fire departments across the area that work extremely well together,” he continued. “They have been able to attack our local fires and contain them before they get out of control. They are a very dedicated and professional group. Their quick and calculated response is the reason we have been able to keep our fires small.”

suzanne@thepicayune.com