Outdoor fires threaten East Texas as weather conditions worsen

Outdoor fires threaten East Texas as weather conditions worsen
Published: Aug. 9, 2023 at 9:21 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - On Wednesday in the 3000 block of Highway 110 in Smith County, a fire destroyed an unoccupied trailer home and quickly spread to the surrounding grass and brush.

Fire crews arrived in time to stop it from crossing the street, but excessive smoke caused both lanes of the highway to be closed to traffic.

Some crews that originally responded to this fire had to be dispatched to other fire calls before this area was completely extinguished.

According to Smith County Fire Marshal Paul Findley*, the drought index they use to measure fire potential is extremely high, and they expect it to get even higher throughout the week. Low humidity, strong winds, dry vegetation and extreme heat are all reasons for the burn bans across East Texas.

“Our training division, this morning, sent us out an email with the heat index and the quality of the wild land fires we were going to have today, so we’re prepared,” says Smith County Battalion Chief Brian Fairchild. “We’ve got all of our plows staffed, extra brush trucks ready to go – we were expecting it with the wind, it’s extremely dry today, low humidity, and it happened. Here we are,” he says.

Just today, Fairchild’s unit alone has received more than 27 calls about fires and illegal burnings, and they expect this trend to continue in the coming days.

“We’re wrapping them up as fast as we can and getting prepared for the next one. staying hydrated – we’ve got safety first, so we’ve got our hydration ready, our rehab, just trying to keep the firefighters going,” he says.

Marshal Findley reminds residents that “any fire occurring during the current weather conditions can quickly escalate,” and these conditions are affecting many areas of East Texas.

As burn bans remain in effect for most East Texas counties, residents are advised to use extreme caution when handling any heat source, from cars to grills, outside.

*Smith County Fire Marshal’s Official Release:

The Smith County Fire Marshal’s Office reminds citizens that all outdoor burning activity in the county is prohibited. The Smith County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday, August 1, to issue a burn ban for the County. The burn ban order is in effect for 90 days, unless conditions improve and the Commissioners Court approves terminating the order early. As weather conditions in the area continue to pose a threat for wildfires, it will require significant rainfall before the order is lifted. The Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) moved into the 700 range today for Smith County. The average KBDI is 704 today, with some areas of the county as high as 758.

The KBDI is a metric used to measure the effects of seasonal drought on fire potential. The actual numeric value ranges from 0 (no moisture depletion) to 800 (absolutely dry conditions). With no significant change in weather patterns expected in the next few days, the KBDI will likely continue to increase. Wind conditions, along with extremely dry grass vegetation can easily result in fires that are difficult to control. Citizens are encouraged to exercise caution when parking near grass. Heat from vehicle exhaust can quickly ignite dry grass. Roadside fires are not uncommon, and our area has experienced incidents where these fires have quickly spread to nearby land, structures, and vehicles.

When pulling trailers, it is extremely important to ensure that tow chains or other metal objects do not contact the roadway. Sparks resulting from this condition can result in roadside fires that can rapidly grow. Area fire departments continue to respond to these types of incidents daily. Call volume has fluctuated, but we have seen a significant number of grass fires and calls for illegal burning since the burn ban was implemented. By 1:00 p.m. today, the county had already experienced six grass fires, one structure fire, and one report of illegal burning for the day.

At 12:30 p.m., multiple fire departments were battling a fast-moving grass fire impacting at least one structure and threatening other buildings and vehicles. While some incidents have been accidental, we continue to respond to calls involving violations to the burn ban. Regardless of cause, any fire occurring during the current weather conditions can quickly escalate. A violation of the burn ban is a Class C Misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $500. Outdoor grilling is still allowed, but citizens should ensure that the grill or smoker contains all flames and includes a lid. Outdoor welding operations are also excluded, if they are conducted following guidelines established by the Smith County Fire Marshal’s Office. Welders must notify and register with the Fire Marshal’s Office in advance. For more information related to the burn ban, please contact the Smith County Fire Marshal’s Office at 903-590-2655.