Herald/Steven Doll - A 2,000-gallon rainwater collection tank sits in Ursula Nanna’s garden in Harker Heights home Friday afternoon. Nanna has several tanks of varied sizes on her property to collect rainwater, which she uses to water plants to conserve water in a drought.

By Rose Thayer and Holly Wise

Killeen Daily Herald

Little rain, high winds and low humidity are combining to increase the threat of wildfires and cause concern over a possible drought.

For the entire month of March, Killeen only received 0.13 inches of rain, putting the area more than an inch and a half below the month's average, according to Rusty Garrett, KWTX News 10 chief weather anchor.

So far, he said, the forecast isn't looking much better in the future.

"We really do count on March, April and May rains to get us through the very dry dog days of summer," he said.

The Texas Forest Service, an organization that includes 200 firefighters, has had plenty of fires to fight so far this year.

April Saginor, Texas Forest Service communications specialist, said the service has fought 478 fires since January, and 117 in the last seven days.

"If you look at the grass in your front yard, you can tell how dry and brittle that is," she said. "If something in that state were to catch on fire, with the high winds, it could spread."

A combination of unseasonably high temperatures, a lot of high winds and low humidity "creates a perfect storm," she said.

That perfect storm has touched parts of Bell and Lampasas counties in recent days, with a blaze burning more than 180 acres in Lometa, and $22,500 worth of hay destroyed in Bell County.

The service dispatches firefighters to fires across the state at the request of local fire departments, though the service does utilize technology to monitor fires.

"Our folks do a pretty good job of monitoring fires," Saginor said. "We can see what's burning right now even though we're not responding to it."

Under burn bans

Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties are all currently under burn bans, which prohibits the setting of outdoor fires. The Bell County Commissioners Court will vote Monday to lift the ban or reinstate it.

"We're expecting a little bit of rain, and the commissioners might pull the ban," Bell County Fire Marshal Steve Casey said. "I have a feeling if we do pull the burn ban, our fires will spike."

After a dry spell, a little bit of rain does not mean the threat of fires is over.

"Even if you do get a little rain, that's not going to moisten everything up to where a fire can't be started," Saginor said.

Casey said rain does keep the fire damage down, but hazards still exist when the grass is as dry as it's been.

"If we get a little bit of rain, we'll green up so the green grass doesn't burn as fast as dead grass, but there's still hazards there," he said.

The current drought index shows most of Bell County in a moderate drought and in need of three to six inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. It forecasts the drought will persist and intensify, setting Central Texas up for a severe-drought year.

The weather center said the last time this area saw a severe drought was in 2005, when the annual rainfall was about 10 inches below normal.

"Even if your county is not under a burn ban, now is not a good time to set things on fire in your yard," Saginor said. "High winds can carry fires fast."

Saginor said a fire can move the length of a football in a minute and that "current weather conditions lend itself to that situation."

Saginor said the Texas Forest Service has responded to fires that have swept across 251,758 acres so far this year. That number jumps to 530,000 acres when individual fire departments fires are reported.

Saginor said the fire season will continue through April.

Plants slow to spring up

Aside from just seeing the ground dry up and crack, other drought side effects include lower water levels, increase fire hazards and increased food costs.

In the season in which plants and lawns are supposed to start coming to life, residents and local gardeners are seeing difficulties in resurrecting their lawns, flower beds and vegetable gardens.

Dirk Aaron, the Bell County extension agent for Texas Agrilife, said he has already begun to see some winter die back and an anemic appearance in plants.

"This year, what's discouraging is we don't have that deep moisture," Aaron said. Deep moisture relates to moisture in the soil from 12 inches to 3 feet and considered critical to new plants in the spring.

"Because we had such dry conditions for so long, that moisture is just not there," Aaron said.

Because hand-watering lawns and plants can be so time-consuming and expensive, Aaron said the best suggestion he has for people is to consider downsizing, or selecting an area that is of higher importance to maintain. And for those willing, to consider an irrigation or sprinkler system.

Ursula Nanna, a Master Gardener in Harker Heights, has been preparing for the drought for some time now. She has several large rain barrels in her backyard where she can collect free rain water and use it to water her gardens.

Nanna said from one inch of rain, she has the potential to harvest 1,250 gallons.

Not only does this save money and natural resources, she said rain water doesn't have the minerals and chlorine added to tap water and it doesn't turn plants white. It also allows you to harvest water where no source is available.

"Newly planted plants, even natives plants, need to be watered regularly until they are established," Nanna said.

She has also chosen Southwestern plants that thrive in Central Texas for her gardens this year. "I'm doing so because of the weather and because there's so much political intrigue around water and water shortages and monitoring."

Nanna suggests using native plants whenever possible when planting a garden. "They are adapted to the climate - the heat, the cold and the drought - so they are more tolerant."

Aaron suggested that anyone having trouble with their lawns or gardens try a soil test to determine what's needed before jumping to conclusions. He also said anyone is welcome to call his office for help at (254) 933-5305 or go to www.txmg.org/bell and get set up with a volunteer from the Bell County Master Gardeners.

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter. Contact Holly Wise at hwise@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7555. Follow her on Twitter at KDHcityeditor.

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