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Weekend rain not enough to lift burn ban

By Susan Taft staft@etcnonline.com
Aug. 18, 2011 at 3 a.m.


Even though some rain fell last weekend, the city and county remain under burn bans.

Given the current drought conditions, virtually everything that can cause a spark can cause a fire, and it will take a significant and lengthy precipitation event to impact this drought, according to David Abernathy, assistant chief, Incident Response Department, with the Texas Forest Service.

"Parts of Camp County received over an inch of rainfall on Saturday, and the Pittsburg Fire Department responded to a wildfire on Sunday," Mr. Abernathy said. "Last Friday, a 354-acre wildfire in Franklin County required 12 fire departments from five counties and four dozers and two helicopters from the Texas Forest Service to contain. One home was lost.

"All a person has to do is look at the vegetation in Camp County. Some of the trees have died from the drought and many more, along with the grasses, have gone into a dormant cycle, just as if it were the dead of winter. All of this is fuel for a fire. We are one careless match or one spark away from a potential disaster."

Camp County has been under a burn ban since June 21; Pittsburg's burn ban went into effect the following day. Residents need to remember that the burn ban means absolutely no outdoor burning as the situation continues to get more critical due to the lack of rain and extreme heat.

"We have been fortunate not to have any serious fires while adjoining counties have experienced fires burning large amounts of acreage recently," County Judge Thomas Cravey said. "Any fire could soon be serious in today's environment. Additional resources from other agencies and the Texas Forest Service are stretched thin with the situation in other counties and might not be readily available if needed.

"It is critical that Camp County residents realize the seriousness of the current conditions and avoid any outdoor burning."

Fire Chief Carl Cravey said he knows the burn ban is an inconvenience, "but it is so dry that if a spark hits the ground, it will take off so fast you wouldn't be able to react fast enough to extinguish the fire before it would get out of control."

As of Aug. 10, the fire department had responded to 27 unauthorized burns.

"Brush piles seem to be the biggest problem due to the fact that when we got a little rain, several people felt it was safe to burn," Chief Cravey said, "but until we get enough rain to green everything up, you could actually have a grass fire with it raining. So I would like to ask everyone to be patient and not do any burning, because Camp County is dry enough to have a large fire like several of the other counties have had, in which several homes and out buildings have been lost."

Camp County deputies have responded to 21 calls of unauthorized burns since June 21 when the burn ban was implemented. Constable John Cortelyou has responded to two calls, and the police department has responded to 10 calls for violation of the burn ban.

Mayor Shawn Kennington said Pittsburg has been very fortunate that no fires have gotten out of control although a number of people have violated the burn ban.

"We have been under a burn ban for over a month, with notice being given in numerous news sources and signs being placed announcing a burn ban is in effect around the city," he said. "In light of the wildfires in several of our surrounding areas that have caused a lot of property damage and several firefighters to become ill while fighting these fires during the already extreme heat, the city will begin to take a zero tolerance approach to the burn ban. We hope that by giving a month of notice and now taking a zero tolerance approach, we have given everyone ample time to be aware of the burn ban while taking measures to protect citizens' property and to ensure the welfare of our firefighters and other first responders."

Those violating the burn ban will face up to a $500 fine.

"If there is property damage to anyone else's property, a criminal complaint for criminal mischief will be filed," Police Chief Richard Penn said. "We continue to experience exceptional drought conditions at this time, and even small fires have the potential to grow out of control quickly."

The Camp County Sheriff's Office has been writing warnings up until this point.

"However, if we got a call to the same place on more than one occasion, a citation was issued," Sheriff Alan McCandless said. "Due to the continued drought, I feel it is going to be necessary for us to start issuing citations for anyone that deliberately ignores the burn bans."

The current fire situation in Texas is unparalleled, according to Mr. Abernathy. A record-setting 248 of the 254 counties have bans in place.

"La Nina, which is noted for creating warmer and dryer conditions in the southeastern United States, has been in place for months," he said. "This has created temperatures and a drought that are setting new records.

"As a result of the drought, Texas has seen significant wildfires since last November. Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration for the state, and from Jan. 1 through Aug. 11, there have been 16,062 wildfires in Texas that have burned 3,367,880 acres and destroyed 606 homes and 1,253 other structures including commercial businesses. Aggressive firefighting efforts have saved 22,474 homes in that same period. The Texas Forest Service has been bringing in additional firefighting resources from across the nation, including dozers, fire engines and aircraft to augment their assets.

"These fires are almost explosive in nature, have been deadly, and are challenging for even the most experienced firefighters."

Mr. Abernathy said humans cause most of the wildfires in Texas and the nation. Among the causes are burning trash, burning brush and land, barbecue grills, and parking vehicles in dry grass. However, it is so dry in Texas that things such as cigarettes, tire blowouts, hay operations, and welding have caused numerous fires.

"The largest forest fire in East Texas history was started by a heated wheel bearing on a trailer," Mr. Abernathy said. "It burned over 20,000 acres and destroyed almost $2 million in pine timber.

"One of the tools used to reduce wildfires is the implementation of a ban on outside burning. While it takes a while to inform everyone that there is a ban, once this is accomplished, without question it raises awareness and is very effective," Mr. Abernathy said. "Unfortunately, the longer a ban is in place, people tend to ignore it. Not a day passes without a wildfire being caused by debris or trash fires in counties with burn bans. Clearly, if everyone obeyed the burn ban, those fires wouldn't have occurred."

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