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Fire Marshal Explains Burn Ban

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Wednesday, Aug. 9 — Comal County residents are watching the numbers this week to see how much longer the controversial burn ban will remain in effect following recent heavy rains in parts of the area.

The county’s Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) currently is at 523, but that’s a moving target updated daily or even several times a day through a service provided by Texas A&M University, according to Comal County Fire Marshal Kody Klabunde. Every 100 points of KBDI is roughly equivalent to an inch of dry soil depth.

He says his office is fielding lots of calls about the burn ban. Consensus seems to be equally divided between those who resent being told how and when they can burn trash, light campfires, and those who think the burn ban makes a lot of sense.

Many are unaware that the burn ban by law must be countywide. Just because it rains on the Spring Branch and Bulverde side of U.S. Highway 281 doesn’t mean the eastern half of the county received as much, if any, precipitation.

“This time of year people need to plan ahead and be ready for a burn ban,” he says. “We’re always pretty confident it’s going to happen at some point in time. We’ve already had grass fires from cigarettes and trailers throwing sparks. That’s how bad we were getting.”

The real problem for Comal County isn’t precipitating factors like heat and drought, but a decades-old policy promoted by Smokey the Bear. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. Forest Service launched local and national campaigns aimed at stamping out all forest fires.

During this time, Comal County — historically an ‘oak savanna’ maintained by regularly occurring natural fires — filled with incendiary scrub brush and small cedar trees that make the region such a tinderbox in long, dry summer months.

According to a Texas A&M Forest Service website, prior to heavy settlement, fire historically played a major role in shaping the vegetation on the Edwards Plateau:

“Fire occurred on the majority of the land every four to seven years. During this interval, Ashe juniper was kept out of most uplands by fire and dense grass competition. Other trees such as escarpment live oak and honey mesquite were kept more isolated among the grasses. In these cases, older trees or groups of trees could either withstand wildfires or inhibit their spread because they are generally more fire resistant than grasses. Concentrated livestock grazing which reduced the fire carrying grasses, allowed trees, especially Ashe juniper to expand into the open areas. Protected canyons and moist, north facing slopes reduced the number of damaging fires which allowed many trees to persist prior to human settlement.”

Today, biologists are working to reverse the damage wreaked by well-intentioned policies with prescribed burns on state and federal lands like Guadalupe River State Park, Klabunde says.

Meanwhile, he urges residents to be careful with outdoor activities.

“Right now we’re not too bad,” he says. “With the rain, we’re a lot better than where we were. But 100-degree temperatures the dryness is coming back.”

So stay inside, stay cool and well-hydrated — and watch the KBDI in real time. Click here for the daily numbers.

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