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As Bastrop wildfire forces evacuations, Travis County issues burn ban

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 by Seth Smalley

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a burn ban, beginning Thursday, Jan. 20, at the behest of the fire marshal. The ban comes after a few fires broke out in Travis County over the weekend, and a 600-plus-acre wildfire (which officials say was started by a prescribed burn) continued to blaze in Bastrop County, threatening homes and forcing evacuations.

The ban, according to Travis County Fire Marshal Tony Callaway, was ordered in response to the unfavorably dry and windy conditions expected later this week. Burn bans typically run about a month (this one expires Feb. 16), but can be lifted at any time if conditions improve.

“We’ve been fortunate for some time to be able to go without having a burn ban,” Callaway told commissioners. “However, I’m concerned with the drop in humidity levels, Thursday and Friday afternoon, specifically. We’re looking at levels as low as 20 percent humidity, coupled with strong northern winds. For that reason, I’m recommending that we go ahead and implement a burn ban.”

The county is particularly vulnerable when humidity levels drop below 25 percent, but in certain areas of the county, high humidity will not prevent a fire.

Callaway also mentioned that there was a letup in drought conditions this year, but due to recent cold spells that normally happen earlier in the season, fuels are beginning to cure “quite quickly.”

“When you get over into the black prairie land, which we have in our southeastern portion of Travis County, that’s where we’re gonna see those quick prairieland-style fires,” Callaway said. “We’ve had fires out in that area before where we’ve actually had saturated, muddy conditions where our brush trucks cannot get into areas. Yet the dry fuel was above the water level, and was dry enough from wind speed where they were burning, and then they would catch neighboring fences on fire. It just shows you that you can have saturated levels, but if your cured fuels above that are dry enough, you can still have fires.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea brought up a photograph that’s circulating of a 10-acre fire that started in southeastern Travis County on Friday.

“There was one along (State Highway) 130, and there was an email sent with a photo of a little girl in a swing set watching the Star Flight crew making sure that the fire was out, and you could see that the fire had burned right up to the wooden swing set,” Shea said.

“The burn ban really is just for safety’s sake, and we saw the potential for a fire starting quickly and spreading quickly,” Shea added.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez motioned and Shea seconded. The resolution was unanimously approved.

Photo of the Possum Kingdom wildfire taken by the Texas Military Department made available through a Creative Commons license.

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