By Jessica Domel

Despite recent rainfall, the majority of Texas remains under a drought and at risk for a wildfire. To prevent future damage to crops, pastures, homes and businesses, the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) is urging all Texans to use caution with anything that can create a spark and ignite a fire outdoors.

“The rain we’re getting right now is great. It’s given us a temporary reprieve, but the long-term drought is still there,” Karen Stafford, TFS program coordinator, said in an interview with the Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network. “So going into hunting season, we definitely want Texas hunters to be very aware of how dry the grass is.”

Hunting

Dove hunting season in the north and central zones opened Thursday, Sept. 1.

The special white-winged dove days in the south zone follow Sept. 2-4 and Sept. 9-11.

“We want everybody to be cautious about parking and idling on dry grass,” Stafford said. “When parking and idling vehicles on dry grass—and not just your large vehicle but UTVs, ATVs and anything like that—the underside of that vehicle can become hot enough to ignite that dry grass and start a fire.”

Hunters are also encouraged to be mindful of what is around where they plan on shooting.

“See what is behind your target whether you’re target practicing or shooting at prey, be aware of shooting into tall, dry grass. Those casings are hot enough that when they fall into that dry grass, it could potentially start a fire,” Stafford said. “Watch for those fires that may ignite.”

Although it may still be a bit too warm to start a campfire when dove season first starts, Stafford urges Texans to be careful with outdoor fires when the time comes.

“It’s not a camp without a campfire, but we do want everybody to remember please to check those local burn bans. If burn bans are still in effect, please respect those burn bans and not have a campfire,” Stafford said. “If they are in an area that does not have a burn ban, and if conditions are safe, then just keep some safety tips in mind with those campfires.”

The forest service recommends making sure the area around where the campfire will be is free of flammable materials before lighting it.

She recommends having a water source, like a water hose or bucket of water, nearby in the event the fire grows too big or starts spreading quickly.

“Keep a phone on you. If you do see a fire anywhere, immediately call 9-1-1 so we can respond to it,” Stafford said.

Grilling

Those who plan to grill this Labor Day weekend, and in general, are also encouraged to ensure they have a water source and phone handy in the event the fire spreads beyond its contained area.

“Before you light it, make sure there’s not heavy grease build up that could flare up and cause flames to come out, which could send sparks out,” Stafford said. “Also, make sure it’s in an area that’s clear and safe. Don’t have it around a lot of other flammable materials, up against the side of your house or around other vegetation. Make sure there’s a safety clearance around it.”

Barbecue pits should be at least five feet away from a structure, like a house, lawn furniture and potted plants.

If there are children or pets in the area, make sure they cannot knock the pit over, sending hot coals onto the ground.

“If you’re using a barbecue pit that has charcoal or wood chips in it, make sure those ashes are out and completely cold before you leave it,” Stafford said. “Before you clean out those ashes and coals, make sure they’re out completely and are cold before you dispose of them.”

Smokers should be cautious while outdoors and mindful of where they toss cigarette butts to avoid starting a wildfire.

“Typically, cigarettes aren’t a huge cause for wildfires in Texas under normal conditions, but right now, as terrible as this drought is, we don’t want to take a risk with anything that’s hot or flammable,” Stafford said. “If you’re disposing of your cigarettes, please do so in a safe container. Don’t just throw them on the ground in the dry grass.”

Mowing and cutting

Stafford said the forest service is seeing many fires started from mowing, shredding and mulching equipment.

“As that dry debris gathers up inside the engine compartments or up inside any of the mechanical parts, they can become heated and ignite that debris that gets built up,” Stafford said. “Keep an eye on belts and pulleys, making sure they’re fully operation and making sure they’re not overheating.”

Maintenance, like ensuring parts are properly oiled and greased, can help prevent wildfires by ensuring those parts don’t become overheated.

“Make sure you’re not in an area full of large rocks,” Stafford said. “If you’re able to clear the area, do so, but if you can’t, just make sure you’re not coming into contact with those rocks. As those metal blades strike the rocks, they’re creating sparks which ignite more fires.”

Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to carry a water source with them, as well, in the event of a wildfire.

Those who carry fire extinguishers in a combine, tractor or truck, are encouraged to ensure they’re in good working condition by checking the gauge on the extinguisher.

When using a fire extinguisher, remember the acronym PASS. Pull the ring or pin out of the handle. Aim the fire extinguisher at the source of the fire. Squeeze the handle and then use a sweeping motion to ensure the fire extinguisher’s contents are sprayed across the fire.

Welding

Welders and cutters should also carry a water source or fire extinguisher.

“Welding is another activity we’re seeing some fires start from. If you have to weld, and you’re around dry grass, always have a spotter with you that can be watching where those sparks land,” Stafford said. “If you can wet down your work area before you start welding, that’s a great precaution to take. If you can weld earlier in the morning, when there may be some dew on the ground, that’s also a good safety practice.”

Towing
Driving down the road during the summer and fall, it’s not uncommon to see burn spots in the grass every few feet.

That can come from drivers dragging something, like a tow chain, or having a bearing going out on their vehicle.

“Secure those tow chains. Make sure they don’t come into contact with the roadway,” Stafford said. “Make sure your wheel bearings are safe and operational. Make sure they’re not becoming overheated because sometimes we do get fires that are started from overheated wheel bearings, brakes that are malfunctioning and sending hot pieces of metal out into the grass.”

Home defense

Home and business owners can help cut down on the fuel load, or vegetation that’s on the landscape available to burn in the event there is a fire, by mowing and maintaining the grass, shrubbery and trees around buildings and vehicles.

“That’s the very beginning of creating the defensible space around your home,” Stafford said. “We call it lean, mean and green. Although the green right now is very different, keep it mowed short because that helps slow that fire spread to your home, your barn or to any structure. It also helps give firefighters easier and safer access into the areas as well so they don’t become trapped.”

Additional tips for creating a defensible space around your home are available here.

Drones and fires

When there is a wildfire in an area, Stafford said it’s important that Texans avoid flying drones over it to get a better look.

“That’s become a huge concern with our aviation and our wildfires because once a drone appears over a fire, if we have aviation flying that fire, we have to ground all of our aircraft as a safety issue,” Stafford said.

That includes the aircraft that are dropping flame retardant or water over a wildfire to get it under control.

“Aside from the aircraft that can drop the water and the retardant, we have aircraft that are just giving us eyes in the sky that are watching the fires, that are watching our crews, making sure we’re in safe locations and telling us what’s ahead of the fire,” Stafford said. “There’s all kinds of aircraft up in the sky on those fires. So please keep your drones grounded and let our aircraft work.”

According to the Lone Star State Incident Management Team, the forest service has operated at an elevated state of readiness since Dec. 9, 2021.

Since then, the forest service and local fire departments have responded to 9,191 wildfires burning 687,331 acres across Texas.

The forest service has since reduced its wildland fire preparedness level to two due to increased rainfall and decrease in wildfire activity.

Currently, 145 of the 254 counties in Texas have burn bans in place.

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