Fire risk ‘extreme’ says Liberty County fire marshal

A recent forest fire burns in the Plum Grove area. (Photo courtesy of Plum Grove FD)

Everywhere you look, things are turning brown. Lawns, typically green and needing to be mowed at this time of year, are brown. Fields and roadside areas are brown, and trees are starting to show signs of stress.

“We haven’t had much rain in more than 40 days,” said Liberty County Fire Marshal Bill Hergemueller. “There is no way to sugarcoat this. It’s not good. We need a significant amount of rain. Everything is dry, dry, dry.”

Liberty County, like other parts of Texas, looks to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index as a factor in determining when it is time to call for a burn ban. This index ranges from 0-800 with 800 being the highest possible fire threat. Currently, Liberty County is averaging a KBDI rating of 764 with it rising to 789 at the peak of the day when temperatures are at their highest. Typically, when conditions are normal in Liberty County, the KBDI numbers hover at around 300.

San Jacinto County wildfire video below:

San Jacinto County wildfire, FM 946
Plum Grove firefighters battle a blaze (Courtesy of Plum Grove VFD)

“I have seen our KBDI get to a little more than 700, but I have never seen it get to 764 average,” the fire marshal said. “The way things are it would not take much to spark a disaster.”

Despite numerous news outlets reminding people of the burn bans that have been called for most of Southeast Texas, people are continuing to set fires to burn debris and trash, the fire marshal said, adding to the risk to properties, wildlife and firefighters and emergency responders who have to deal with the aftermath when a fire spreads out of control.

“The biggest problem time we have is in the evening when people come home and start burning trash or debris. Burning trash is against the law anyway and burning debris during a burn ban is also illegal,” Hergemueller said. “We have stopped warning people and started issuing citations. We have been stepping things up in the past two weeks in Liberty County as the fire threat has worsened. I understand that sometimes people don’t watch the news, but it’s on every channel and newspaper for the whole state of Texas.”

As Hergemueller wears a dual hat as emergency management coordinator for Liberty County, he is monitoring the Gulf for possible hurricane and tropical storm activity that will push away the heat dome, which is causing the extreme temperatures.

“They are talking about rain in our area next week, but that is not going to undo our burn ban. We could be looking at drought conditions until fall unless we get a significant amount of rain before then,” he said.

Arguably the worst area for burn ban violations are the Colony Ridge communities and Plum Grove where there were approximately 190 fire calls in just the first 10 days of August. Since that time, there have been multiple other fire calls in that area.

Over in Montgomery County, Liberty County’s neighbor to the northwest, law enforcement also is ramping up enforcement of burn bans, according to Montgomery County Fire Marshal Jimmy Williams.

Magnolia wildfire started by trash fire, Aug. 15, 2023.

Williams, in an emailed press release, encouraged residents to continuing following local guidelines and adhering to burning restrictions.

“Magnolia Firefighters were summoned to a wildfire before daylight this morning (Thursday, Aug. 17), marking the start of what is likely to be another busy day for firefighters across Southeast Texas.  Each day this week, Magnolia crews have responded to wildfires due to careless outdoor burning. These preventable wildfires have threatened numerous homes and two homes were damaged in a fire earlier this week,” the statement reads.

A Montgomery County Deputy fire marshal was responding to the scene and as he entered the subdivision, another resident was already up and starting to burn trash in the yard of their home, just a couple of blocks from the active wildfire. That resident was cited for burning trash in a subdivision and violating the county burn ban. 

“Those that choose to burn is spite of the current fire danger can also be held responsible, both criminally and civilly, for the damage they cause. Yesterday, the Texas A&M Forest Service and all assigned resources responded to 19 new wildfires across Texas for 306 acres burned. One hundred-ninety-six counties currently have burn bans in place,” the statement continues.

If you notice someone burning trash or debris in your area, please call 911 and report it. Violating a burn ban is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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