Two years removed from Texas’ worst wildfire season in decades, Central Texas remains under severe drought conditions.
It is the third worst possible designation, based on accumulated amounts of rainfall. Even with recent spates of drenching rains, the threat of wild-land fires looms, and local fire departments are working to be prepared.
On the front lines are the county’s volunteer fire departments. Unlike municipal fire departments, they encompass the rural parts of the county most susceptible to large-scale wildfires.
State budget cuts have dipped into their grant reserves. The Texas A&M Forestry Service has typically been the source of grant money that allows volunteer fire departments to purchase much-needed equipment.
But since the 2011 legislative session, the forestry service has seen its budget cut. Despite the historic wildfire season, so far, legislators have not acted to increase funding to the state agency that performs critical training and responds to wildfires.
Southwest Bell County Fire and Rescue Capt. Steven Cornelius has been a volunteer firefighter for about eight years. Since 2011, Cornelius said the amount of grant money available for volunteer fire departments has dropped 65 to 70 percent.
For a department that depends on fundraising fish fries and barbecues to supplement the funding it receives from the county, the drop means a lot.
“We go ahead and purchase equipment ourselves,” Cornelius said. “We used to rely on the Texas Forestry Service, but they haven’t been able to provide money.”
But volunteer fire departments and their municipal counterparts are not ill prepared.
Cornelius said firefighters at his department have taken continued training courses in how to combat and prevent wild-land fires.
Steven Carter, the area’s regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Forestry Service, said he spends a lot of time taking equipment to area fire departments. His region encompasses seven counties and 54 fire departments.
About 80 percent of those fire departments are volunteer units. “They’re neighbors helping neighbors,” he said.
Firefighters are preparing for wildfire season, which can begin as early as March. The spring months are known as a time when plant life should be greening with moisture, but if rains are insufficient, the high winds associated with the season can create dangerous fire conditions, Carter said.
The most dangerous areas are undeveloped lands with acres of overgrown brush and dead, dry cedar. “It’s like gasoline,” Carter said.
“Cedar is really volatile fuel for our area,” Carter said. “When those needles turn brown, they burn pretty intense.”
To prepare, Carter said volunteer fire departments first need to be performing maintenance on their equipment. Killeen Fire Chief J.D. Gardner said his firefighters also have been taking classes on wild-land fires.
Killeen Fire Department also made upgrades to its booster fleet, which are smaller fire trucks on pickup truck chassis. Those trucks are used most often in fighting wild-land fires because they can easily travel off road.
Gardner said the department also has performed informal surveys of the city looking for areas that might pose a danger in fire season because of unchecked brush growth.
“If we see a situation that is a hazard, we will notify (homeowners) and work with them to keep it cleared,” Gardner said.
Residents can prepare their homes themselves. Cornelius said gutters should be cleared of any leaves. A buildup of dead, dry leaves can create an environment where a small spark or ember from a nearby fire can create a devastating house fire.
Homeowners should take care to trim their trees and residents should create a 50-foot-wide perimeter around their homes where all brush is cleared.
Many tips are available on the widely recommended website firewise.org.