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Burnet County declares fire and drought disasters

Burnet County Emergency Management Coordinator Derek Marchio

Burnet County Emergency Management Coordinator Derek Marchio presents two proclamations for declarations of disaster for drought and fire during the Burnet County Commissioners Court meeting Aug. 22. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Burnet County is under two states of emergency, one for drought and one for fire. The Commissioners Court authorized the double status after a presentation by Emergency Management Coordinator Derek Marchio on Tuesday, Aug. 22. 

The states of emergency reinforce existing water restrictions and fire controls on a countywide level in the face of mounting drought conditions and wildfire risks.

“As this drought persists, it will increase stress on our agricultural systems and also potentially on human life if wells and water systems have to put stronger restrictions in place,” Marchio told commissioners. “We’re extremely dry across the county and really much of Central Texas. Many of the reasons for the fire risk we have are because of the drought. We have been in a drought since last year.”

The same conditions that contributed to the drought led to the county’s declaration of disaster for fire.

Keetch-Byram Drought Index for Texas, 2023
A Burnet County Emergency Management slide depicts the widespread drought conditions according to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index across the state. Courtesy image

Burnet County is currently rated a 738 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture and potential fire risk. The scale goes from 0-800, and specifically measures how much water is necessary to saturate the top 8 inches of soil in a given region. Burnet County’s 738 rating means 7 inches of rain are needed to fully saturate the ground, which is about 20 percent of the area’s annual average rainfall.

Marchio told commissioners that Burnet County has seen 81 grass fires since fire season kicked off in mid-July, which amounts to over two fires a day. He did note that fire crews have been fast-acting in putting out the blazes.

“Our fire departments are getting these out very quickly, but that is only because they are basically responding at the snap of a finger,” he said.

The fire declaration makes it clear that no outdoor burning should take place, with very few exceptions. Cooking outdoors is acceptable if it is within a grill designed for cooking that has a lid capable of suppressing flames. Welding, cutting, and grinding are also allowed as long as proper precautions are taken, such as saturating the ground, not leaving work or equipment unattended, and removing combustible materials from the area.

The proclamation declaring a local state of disaster for drought in Burnet County doesn’t create any new regulations, but it does bring attention to the current mandatory and recommended water use restrictions from entities across the county:

  • The Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District is currently in Stage 4 of its drought management plan, the most severe ranking, and is recommending that groundwater users avoid unnecessary watering and that overall use be reduced by 30 percent. The district has also implemented mandatory 15 percent reductions on overall annual use for groundwater permit holders.
  • The Lower Colorado River Authority announced it was entering Stage 2 of its drought mitigation plan on Aug. 12, which requires all firm water customers to cut usage by 10-20 percent. This was triggered by the combined water storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis dropping to 46 percent of maximum capacity.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott has declared Central Texas to be in a state of drought since July 8, 2022.
  • Water providers across the Highland Lakes have all implemented varying stages of their drought management plans, which call for major reductions in outdoor watering and abstaining from unnecessary use.

Both of the county’s declarations of disaster will remain in effect until drought conditions are reduced.