Originally published June 26. Updated July 5.
On July 5, Hays County Judge Dr. Bert Cobb signed an emergency order banning outdoor burning in the county.
According to the county, Cobb also enacted an emergency disaster declaration, allowing the county to prohibit the use of fireworks, particularly those with "sticks and fins," such as bottle rockets. The county saw no fireworks-related fires July 4.
In a statement from the county, Cobb said he decided to enact the ban after consulting with Hays County Fire Marshal Mark Chambers.
“We’ve concluded that a burn ban is necessary to help prevent the threat of wildfires in Hays County,” Cobb said in the statement. “The Keetch-Byram Drought Index was climbing toward and over 575, an indication that the ground is very dry and that vegetation has become a source of fuel for any spark.”
The ban prohibits all outdoor burning except for in charcoal and gas grills that include a lid and for certain exceptions approved by the fire marshal, such as controlled burns.
The ban is in effect for seven days, after which it will end unless the judge issues another emergency order. Hays County commissioners could vote to extend the ban for up to 90 days at their next meeting, which is July 17.
At their regular meetings June 26 and July 3, commissioners had opted not to impose a burn ban after Chambers reported that the drought index had not reached 575.
"As of this morning … we're at 495 on the drought index. Usually we start looking at the burn ban around 575," Chambers said June 26. "Our 14-day outlook is going to put us at about 610 if we don't get any rain."
Counties use the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, the measure of an area's fire potential, to determine whether to enact or maintain a burn ban.
The index number is created in part by measuring the amount of moisture in the soil; the scale ranges from 0 to 800, with 800 being "absolutely dry conditions."
Chambers said June 26 that the county's fire chiefs had not reported any serious problems. There had been a couple of small grass fires that were quickly contained, he said.
"We're not really having any problems right now, although if we do start having problems, we can go to the judge, he can put it on an emergency order, and we can enact that right away and come back and ratify that through the court," he said. "That's the wishes of the fire chiefs, to make it through this July Fourth holiday and then, more than likely, come back to the court and ask that the ban be put back in place."
Cobb said the ban last year on burning and on the sales of fireworks cost fireworks vendors millions of dollars in lost sales.
"We would like to support that industry if we can. They've worked with us, and their cooperation was greatly appreciated last year," Cobb said June 26.
Cobb said that, according to the National Weather Service, the El Niño weather pattern is expected to persist and worsen.
"So the outlook for this part of United States is drought, continued," he said. "We need to ask our people to conserve water and use good common sense when they're burning."
In 2011, Hays County remained under a burn ban for 316 days. Information about outdoor burning, the drought index and fire safety is available on the county's website, www.co.hays.tx.us.