Following weeks of hot and dry weather, local and state officials discussed increased drought conditions as well as fire safety tips as Texas heats up going into August.
“When we get pretty decent rainfall in the spring, we get a good amount of grass produced across the county. Unfortunately, when things turn hot and dry like we have been since June, that grass turns into very good fuel for fire,” Parker County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Jay Kingston said. “Residents should be aware of their surroundings and understand what can contribute to devastating fires and take action to mitigate that threat.”
According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, significant wildfire activity has increased statewide, and accelerated drying has elevated the potential for new wildfire ignitions. New wildfires will become increasingly difficult to extinguish if current temperatures and drying conditions persist into August as forecasted.
“Vegetation is rapidly losing moisture due to consecutive days of extremely high temperatures,” Brad Smith, Texas A&M Forest Service predictive services department head, said. “Grass that was green five days ago has wilted and turned brown under the accelerated drying produced from the extreme heat. It will be quite difficult to replenish this lost moisture during the normally dry months of July and August.”
Texas A&M Forest Service Chief Regional Fire Coordinator Rich Gray reported that state resources have been “extremely busy,” responding to the uptick in wildfire activity across the state, and conditions continue to deteriorate at a rapid pace.
“Much of Texas is primed for wildfires right now,” Gray said. “While it’s important for individuals to take steps to prepare and protect their homes and families for a wildfire, I would also urge Texans to think about protecting our first responders, too—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—and prevent a wildfire from ever starting.”
Weatherford Fire Department Battalion Chief Wes McBride said Weatherford and Parker County is considered Wildland Urban Interface.
“The Wildland Urban Interface is an area where human-made structures and infrastructure — cell towers, schools, water supply facilities, etc. — are in or adjacent to areas prone to wildfire,” McBride said. “In Weatherford and surrounding WUI areas, there is a threat when conditions are prime. High temperatures, Low Relative Humidity, Keetch-Byram Drought Index and winds help drive the summer wildfire season. These four conditions pull fuel moisture out of live and dead fuels, making natural vegetation prone to catch fire by natural or human means.”
Since July 1, the forest service and local fire departments have responded to 155 wildfires that burned 27,889 acres across the state. Many of the recent wildfire starts have been attributed to humans and their activities — such as equipment use and debris burning — and are preventable.
“Weatherford and surrounding fire departments have responded to several grass fires this summer; however, higher relative humidity has helped keep these fires small,” McBride said. “Many of the fires went without media coverage due to their size. As the temperature continues to climb and the relative humidity drops, the fuel load will become dryer and more vulnerable to fire.”
Kingston said there are many things residents can do to help prepare their properties for wildfires.
“There are a number of things that homeowners can do now to create a firewise landscape. The first things to know are the three main influences that could cause your home or structure to catch fire,” Kingston said. “The first influence is fuel sources, which include surface fuels like dry grass, shrubs, dead branches, firewood. Another fuel source is ladder fuels. These include tall brush, low branches that can carry fire from the ground into the tops of trees. The last fuel source is located in the tops or canopies of trees and tall shrubs. These can spread fire quickly and intensely. I was once helping with a controlled burn on a property and I remember never being more scared when I saw and heard the fire rolling through the canopy of a cedar break.
“I have a lot of respect of what a fire can do.”
Kingston said weather influences also contribute to fires including windy conditions, which the county has been experiencing. He added that wind can carry embers up to a mile or more.
Kingston said drought conditions and low humidity levels can lead to drying of vegetation.
“Terrain also influences fire. Fires will move more quickly uphill and create larger flames. There are three zones around homes that we consider when creating a firewise landscape,” Kingston said. “Zone 1 is the first 30 feet next to the home or structure. Some practices in this zone include keeping vegetation well irrigated and green, mow the lawn regularly and use non-flammable or low flammable landscaping materials. Other things to remember is to stack firewood away from the house and keep propane and other flammable liquids out of this zone.”
Zone 2 is 30 to 60 feet away from the home, Kingston said. In this zone the goal is to slow down any fire that may be approaching a residence. Plants in this zone should be low growing and well irrigated. Kingston said to leave 30 feet between clusters of two or three trees and prune them 6 to 10 feet off the ground. Driveways, gravel walkways and lawns can be a good fuel break as well.
“The third zone is 60 to 100 feet from the home. The goal in this zone is to keep embers and hot ash from reaching your home and help to keep the fire on the ground instead of getting into tree canopies,” Kingston said. “This can be done by removing heavy accumulations of woody debris, thinning trees to remove smaller conifers and reducing the density of tall trees so canopies are not touching.”
If a wildfire is spotted, the forest service advises residents to immediately contact local authorities, as a quick response can help save lives and property.
The Parker County website as well as the Parker County Office of Emergency Services Facebook page provides updates on burning for residents outside the Weatherford city limits. While Parker County is not currently under an official burn ban, whether burning is permitted or not can change daily depending on conditions.
The county website also lists outdoor burning requirements.
Burning can only be done at a time when the wind speed is greater than 6 miles per hour and less than 23 miles per hour, burning must be done no earlier than one hour after sunrise or later than one hour before sunset, only dry growth generated on the burn site can be burned and you cannot burn within 300 feet of a residential, recreational, commercial or industrial area that is not located on the property where the burning is occurring. Prohibited materials to burn include asphaltic materials, chemical wastes, electric insulation, items containing natural or synthetic rubber, non-wood construction/demolition materials, petroleum products, plastics, potentially explosive materials and treated lumber.
“It is important that residents of Parker County that live within the city limits of Weatherford know that outdoor burning is not permitted,” McBride said.