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2012-08-23

Is burn ban about to be back?

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Bandera County Fire Marshal John Stith indicated he would recommend that county commissioners impose a burn ban at their Thursday, August 23, meeting.

Despite rains earlier in the spring, the Hill County remains in the grip of a drought. So far, according to Stith, the county has luckily not been plagued with wildfires.

However, a blaze that occurred last week off Seco Pass could have become problematic if it had occurred just a day later.

According to Tarpley Volunteer Fire Department Chief Adam Jenschke, who served as incident commander, a motorist driving on FM 470 first spotted the fire on Tuesday, August 14. Apparently, a lightning strike the night before had caused a cedar tree to smolder before it finally ignited, according to Stith.

"The fire occurred on top of a mountain in an area that was difficult to access," Jenschke said in an interview. Stith offered to contact the regional fire coordinator in Fredericksburg and request a spotter plane to pinpoint the fire's location. However, according to Jenschke, that proved unnecessary.

"We could see the column of smoke from 470 and realized the location was only accessible by foot," he said. Tarpley firefighters spent approximately two hours searching for ranch roads to gain access to the site. "Nothing got us close so we had to hike in," Jenschke said. "Once we got into the canopy, however, we couldn't determine exactly where the fire was."

To find the blaze, a technique called echo location was used. One firefighter remained on FM 470. When the hikers shouted out periodically, that firefighter used the sound of their voices to direct them closer to the fire.

""We carried backpacks with five gallons of water each and I had a chainsaw that we used to put out the fire when we finally found it," Jenschke said. It took four firefighters about 30 minutes to extinguish it.

"We were lucky because the fire was small and not close to a home or livestock," Jenschke said, He added, however, "It might have been a different story if it occurred the next day when the wind kicked up.

That's rough and rugged country out there."

Once again, Bandera County finds itself faced with conditions conducive to wildfires. "Before I recommend the re-instatement of a burn ban, I consult fire chiefs throughout the county," Stith said. "We use the necessary information to make sure we're making the best decision."

He added, "A KBDI (Keetch-Byram Drought Index) of over 575 is the golden number." Used to determining forest fire potential, the KBDI is based on a daily water balance.

According to

twc.tamu.edu/drought/kbdi,

a drought factor is balanced with precipitation and soil moisture assumed to have a maximum storage capacity of eight inches.

Currently, conditions in Bandera County are rated between 500 and 600, with zero representing no moisture depletion and 800 indicating absolutely dry conditions.

Stith took cedar samples on Monday and Tuesday to enable him to make a persuasive case in front of commissioners. "The samples will tell me how much moisture is still in the cedars," he explained. "Normally cedar lines will stop grassfires, but not always. In Bastrop last year, the grassfire ignited the cedars creating crown fires that jumped from treetops to treetops."

Regardless of what commissioners decide on August 23, Stith urged everyone to use caution when dealing with outdoor fires. He noted that the rains that drenched parts of the county last weekend failed to alleviate dangerous conditions.

"All the grass that grew earlier is now bone dry and serves as excellent fuel. No matter how much it rains, once grass is dead it's dead," Stith said.

For more information about how residents can protect themselves, their families and properties, visit

texasfirestorm.org.