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Dry season has fire danger high

Profile image for By Megan Gray / Staff Writer
By Megan Gray / Staff Writer

Weekend rain fails to ease drought

While recent rainfall was welcome, officials say North Texas is still in record-breaking drought and fire dangers continue to linger.

Jennifer Dunn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said North Texas had the third-driest start this year in recordkeeping history. Although an estimated inch of rainfall fell Saturday, residents likely will see potential fire warnings come back as early as Tuesday for areas west of Interstate 35.

“We have had below-average rainfall for quite some time now, and that only elevates the fire risk,” Dunn said.

Just last week, Denton County was under a red-flag warning for fire danger when a wildfire covering more than 180 acres struck in Trophy Club and Flower Mound.

Red-flag warnings are issued on a case-by-case basis and updated daily, according to National Weather Service officials.

“When there is lower than 30 percent humidity, high winds and dry fuel, it’s easier for fires to start, and this is why the warnings are issued,” Dunn said. “When the warning is issued, we highly encourage outdoor work that may cause a spark to be put on hold until conditions improve.”


Recent trends

Nick Harrison with the Texas A&M Forest Service said North Texas is in the time of year when winter fires historically are prevalent.

That is primarily because grass and other plants are frost-cured, dormant and readily available to burn, Harrison said.

“Grasses are the primary carrier for wildfire in Texas and move the fire into other fuels, such as brush and trees, or fences, homes,” he said.

Denton County Deputy Fire Marshal Marc Dodd said that the county has responded to three times as many grass fires this month as last month, but that is typical for this time of year.

“Since we have been in drought the last few years, the conditions are not just seasonal anymore,” Dodd said.

A fire potential report for this winter and spring from the Texas A&M Forest Service states that an upper-level high-pressure ridge over western portions of the United States is producing dry, northwest flow into Texas with frequent frontal passages — causing surface fuels to dry at an accelerated rate.

Dodd said grass, trees and brush are considered fuel and the more residents have on their property, the more at risk they are for wildfires.


Fires rising

Fires have been on the rise in the county and across the state. A report released Thursday by the forest service shows that 76 wildfires were reported across the state and consumed 1,589 acres in the previous seven days.

The U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday indicates that Denton County is facing moderate to severe drought conditions, only heightening the fire risk.

Throughout the state, areas with housing often are located near wild land areas, which can increase the danger of property damage should a fire occur.

Trophy Club Fire Chief Danny Thomas said that at times homes were only 50 to 60 yards from the blazes Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The fire began Tuesday on the north side of town on the Army Corps of Engineer property before jumping the creek and going to the Flower Mound side,” Thomas said. “At least 100 acres were burned on our side and roughly 80 acres burned in Flower Mound.”

Multiple agencies — including a Tarrant County and Denton County task force — set out to battle the fire.

Of the nearly 200 personnel working the fire, only one — a firefighter who got something in his eye — needed medical treatment, Thomas said.

“I am very thankful for everyone’s assistance and so glad nobody was seriously injured while fires burned for two days in the area,” he said.

Last month, the Denton Fire Department faced a two-acre wildfire at UNT Discovery Park.

Kenneth Hedges, spokesman for the department, said high winds initially made it difficult to contain the fire, and the winds helped spark a second fire nearly 300 feet from the first.

Both fires, officials said, remain under investigation.


Preventative measures

Being alert and informed on current conditions is the most important way to keep your property, home and family safe, officials said.

Calling the Denton County Fire Marshal Office at 940-349-2840 to see if the county is under a burn restriction is the first step, Dodd said.

Anyone caught burning on a non-burn day could receive a citation and face additional trouble.

“You suddenly could be standing there without a home and being charged with arson for setting your neighbor’s home on fire — all because the fire you started got out of control,” Dodd said.

Studies show that as many as 80 percent of homes lost to wildfires could have been saved if the homeowners followed simple fire-safe practices. In addition, most wildfire-related deaths occur because people wait too long to leave their homes.

Dodd said creating defensible space that will create a buffer to slow or halt the spread of the fire to structures is essential. Officials recommend:

— removing all dead or dying vegetation from your home to 30 feet out;

— trimming tree canopies regularly to keep their branches a minimum of 10 feet from structures and other trees;

— removing dry leaves and pine needles from yards, roofs and rain gutters;

— removing any combustible material from around and under decks;

— removing or pruning vegetation near windows; and

— removing “ladder fuels” — low-lying vegetation that allows fire to spread from the ground to the tree canopy.

Officials said getting rid of all dead plant material is a must to help minimize the threat of fire jumping from plant to plant.

Keeping grass mowed to a maximum height of four inches is ideal, authorities said.

“Anything can spark a fire — from an electric tool to a trash burn — and prevention is key in making sure everyone is kept safe,” Dodd said.


Looking ahead

Sunday’s outlook showed Denton County is under low to moderate fire danger this week.

Steve Fano, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that while most areas in Denton County received more than an inch of rainfall Saturday, it was “only a drop in the bucket” for the extended drought conditions.

“The fire conditions we are looking at for Tuesday would be a lot worse had the area not received the rain,” he said.

MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.