On Aug. 8., Wharton County commissioner’s court declared the first county-wide burn ban in almost two years as temperatures hovered near 100 degrees and no significant rainfall was forecast for the near future.

In mid-September, Tropical Storm Imelda brought just enough rainfall to lift the local six-week moratorium on burning. To this date, our surrounding neighbors in Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Fayette, Colorado, Lavaca, Jackson, and most counties to the west are continuing active bans on outside burning in efforts to protect and preserve public health, safety and property.

In spite of this past summer’s high temperatures and continued dry conditions, some local constituents have raised concerns about the need and authority of county and state governments to regulate when and how private landowners burn their own personal household trash and outdoor debris.

The plain and simple truth is outdoor burn bans and related burning laws help save property, animals and human lives. While the majority of landowners are cautious in their burning, there still exists a careless few who are either oblivious to the law or just lack basic common sense.

Each year, local and regional fire departments answer numerous calls stemming from negligent landowners leaving burns unattended; several who continue to burn after dark; some who burn too close to a neighbor’s home; and others who are piling on hazardous prohibited materials like tires, treated lumber and household insulation.

In 1999, the State of Texas adopted Section 352.081 of the Texas Local Government Code (a.k.a. the Burn Ban Statute). This law provides commissioner courts with the authority to adopt outdoor burn ban orders when 1) the Texas Forest Service determines that drought conditions exist using the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI); or 2) the commissioners’ court makes a finding that circumstances present in all or part of the unincorporated area create a public safety hazard that would be exacerbated by outdoor burning.

Pursuant to this code, Wharton and most other Texas counties have approved standing orders that initiate outdoor burn bans whenever the KBDI reaches the 500 trigger mark.

If you can remember back to 2011, around the time of the horrific Lost Pines forest fire outside of Bastrop, Wharton County operated under burn ban restrictions for much of that year because we stayed well into the 600 index readings. By the end of 2011, a record 251 Texas counties had adopted burn ban orders.

Regardless of moisture conditions, the best strategy for preventing wildfires is to increase public awareness of state mandated outdoor burn rules (Texas Administrative Code, Section 111):

• Call the sheriff’s office ahead of time to report your controlled burn at 979-543-1373 or 979-532-1550;

• Never leave your burn unattended;

• Only burn downwind of or at least 300 feet from any residence or business;

• Do not start fires in high grass and keep a water supply near;

• Do not commence burning earlier than one hour before sunrise and complete all burning on that same day no later than one hour before sunset;

• Do not burn electrical insulation, treated lumber, plastics, heavy oils, tires and other potentially hazardous materials;

• Any time burning causes smoke to blow onto or across a road or highway, the person initiating the burn is responsible for posting flag-persons on affected roads.

Violation of burn ban orders and the aforementioned burning rules is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $500. Outdoor burners can be held liable for fire-related damages to neighboring structures, fences and livestock.

My fellow citizens, while many have been blessed with recent rainfall and our current 404 KBDI reading extinguishes the immediate need for additional bans, it is imperative that we all recognize and remember that even the smallest of outdoor burns can flare up and quickly get out of hand when not properly managed.

On behalf of your friends, neighbors and all Wharton County emergency responders, please stay attentive in your burning and always adhere to the state prescribed burning laws. As previously stated, the majority of landowners are cautious in their burning ... it’s the careless few that give rise for concern.

As county judge, my primary objective continues to be preparing Wharton County for the future while always maintaining our unique small-town way of life.

Residents can check the status of local burning conditions on the Wharton County website (co.wharton.tx.us) or by contacting the County Judges office (979-532-4612).

Editor’s Note: The KBDI reading is also posted on the front page of each copy of the El Campo Leader-News at the bottom left corner.

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