Malibu is burning… Is Lockhart next?
For nearly a week, the news has been dominated by tales of the out-of-control fires raging in California. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been displaced by what could be the most preventable form of natural disaster – wildfire.
Over the last four years, I have seen first hand how innocent fires can spring out of control and become di
sastrous. People have lost crops, property and homes, right here in Caldwell County, as a result of what amounts to pure carelessness.
I understand there is a need for burning certain materials. When I was a child, we lived out in Fentress and my Granny used to burn her trash, in the side yard, once a week. If I think really hard, I can probably remember a time or two she did that without the hose or a bucket of water laying at her feet – but it couldn’t have been very often.
After a harvest, I understand that farmers have to burn off the stalks of their crops. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.
As long as people are being careful and following the law, there is no reason why such burning cannot take place.
More troublesome, though, are the fires that spring up because people are careless, lazy or just not thinking.
For instance, how many times, during the summer and fall when it is dry and windy, have you seen a patch of charred grass next to a highway. In playing the odds and talking the same over with my friends in the fire service, I call it a safe bet that most of those fires were sparked by a cigarette thrown out the window of a car.
I have seen grass fires, right in the middle of town, sparked by cigarettes thrown in yards.
I have seen grass fires ignited by embers falling out of an ill-maintained barbecue pit. I am told one fire, within the last few years, was sparked by a piece of paper blown from a trash barrel, which later destroyed not only acreage, but a home.
On the one hand, we in Texas are lucky. We do not have the legendary, dry Santa Ana winds to contend with. According to reports from California, the wind patterns are making it difficult for firefighters to contain the fires.
On the other hand, particularly those of us here in Caldwell County, are handicapped in our fire service by our significant dependence on volunteer firefighters. If a fire breaks out in a rural area, we as a community depend solely on the goodwill of others to save our property, our homes and ultimately, our lives.
We live in a region that had an exceptionally wet spring and summer, and is being followed by an exceptionally dry fall. The early rains caused “fuel” (weeds, grasses and crops) to grow higher and thicker than normal. The dry winds have caused that fuel to dry, creating a thick, dry mat of tinder across the county. Dry weeds and grasses burn hot, and they burn quickly.
Because of the rugged nature of much of the land in the county, many areas cannot be accessed with our equipment. Rural firefighters often have to wait for assistance from Texas Forest Service bulldozers or Texas National Guard helicopters to fight fires.
These variables come together as risk factors to enhance dangerous situations that are largely preventable.
As a community, there are certain steps we can take to protect ourselves and our neighbors.
We can remember, and remind our neighbors, that the County is under an outdoor burning ban. Under the ban, those found to be burning an illegal fire can be fined up to $500 and charged with a Class C Misdemeanor.
If we must burn, we can make sure to take precautions to make sure our fires do not get out of control. Keep water within reach, and never leave a fire unattended. Don’t burn on a windy day. The risk of wildfire increases exponentially in heavy or gusty winds.
We can remember, too, that if a fire for which we are responsible goes out of control and burns another owner’s property, we can be held liable for damage to that property.
When it comes right down to brass tacks, we can weigh the pros against the cons to determine if lighting a fire is really worth it. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to let the trash pile up, but isn’t it better to have a garage stacked with trash than to have that garage burned by a fire gone out of control?