Coryell County commissioners table action on amendment to declaration of local disaster for drought conditions
By BRITTANY FHOLER
The Coryell County Commissioners tabled action during an Aug. 9 meeting, on a proposed amendment to the county’s Declaration of Local Disaster for the Crittenburg Complex Fire and critical wildfire hazards that would prohibit the use of certain ammunition during critical drought conditions in order to limit fire risks.
County Judge Roger Miller presented the background of the proposed amendment to the Commissioners and explained that he did not have the official item written up in time for Tuesday’s meeting due the County Attorney being caught up in jury cases.
Earlier in the meeting, Emergency Management Coordinator Bob Harrell and Gatesville Fire Chief Billy Vaden each gave a brief update on the recent fires this summer in the county.
“We've had quite a few,” Harrell said. “With the exception of two that I know of, and [GVFD Chief Billy Vaden] can correct me if I’m wrong, we've only had two that were acts with God or caused by lightning. The rest are caused by negligence, welding, grinding, firing range. Recently, the state and county have expended thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight these fires. We’ve had aircraft support on the 107 fire and also on the Bald Knob Road fire. We also had many resources thrown at Texas Forestry Service to help to fight these wildfires.”
The Bald Knob Road Fire was reported to have started at Holley Gun Range at the beginning of the month. Other notable fires this summer include the Post Oak Fire, which burned several acres along F.M. 107, erupting near Oglesby.
“Welders, we understand they’ve got to make a living, but when you take a gallon jug of water and expect that to be sufficient to stop a wildfire, I think we need to go back and work with that situation,” Harrell added.
Billy Vaden shared that he counted a total of 59 grass fires in Coryell County during the month of July. Two or three of those fires are believed to have been caused by lightning strikes, he added.
“It’s been very expensive for all of us,” Vaden said.
Vaden said he ran the figures just on the Holley Gun Range fire [also known as the Bald Knob Road Fire], just for the Gatesville Fire Department.
Using the FEMA schedule for the cost, it cost the Gatesville Fire Department approximately $18,000, he explained.
“That’s not clear to what it costs for Texas Forestry Service out here,” Vaden said. “Their bail is going to be much, much higher. They had a lot more people on it. They didn't have any more equipment than we did except they had three dozers versus our one dozer.”
For the month of August so far, there has only been five grass fires, as of the 9th, Vaden said.
“I don’t know that it’s slowed down,” he said. “It’s off to a slow start, I’ll put it that way.”
Vaden added that the biggest cause of the fires in the county has been due to grinding, not necessarily welding.
“The guys are all pretty good for welders, especially the guys that really build fences- they’re very cautious,” Vaden said. “They have water, they have everything they need, but we have a lot of weekend guys that want to build their own fence and people who buy these little spots, they want to build it, and they’re not quite as cautious.”
These individuals show off their five-gallon jug of water when asked about having any water, he added. This is not sufficient for putting out a fire because it cannot be sprayed out.
He explained that grinding is a bigger concern for causing fires than welding because it has a larger reach. Welding starts fires within a six-foot circle, while grinding could start a fire 30 to 40 feet away, he added.
Vaden said he felt that the county could possibly “tighten the reins” on the equipment used during a burn ban.
Comparing the total amount spent on fuel by July, for both 2021 and 2022, Vaden shared that the cost spent on fuel had increased substantially. By July 2021, his department had spent $7,000 on fuel for the year. This year, that amount was up to nearly $20,000, he said.
Vaden said this summer has reminded him of how conditions were in 2011, when Texas experienced a historical drought, with more than 70 percent of the state under exceptional drought conditions.
Vaden said that 2011 drought started around August, compared to this year’s drought which started earlier, in June.
The proposed amendment, which Miller said he worked on with input from Vaden and County Attorney Brandon Belt, would have three components.
The first component would address weapons and ammunition being discharged within the county, regardless of whether they are at a range or not.
“In essence, what it does is it prohibits the use of metal or hardened targets,” Miller said. “I say that because a bullet in and of itself does not start a fire, but the striking of a fully jacketed rifle round against a hardened steel target not only creates sparks in and of itself, but also creates a ricochet hazard, as well.”
Other hardened targets that would be prohibited would be things like using shooting at rocks, shooting at bricks, shooting at concrete materials that again are not designed to allow the round to penetrate, Miller added.
Another component would be addressing the type of ammunition used.
“The categories that we would propose to be prohibited are any round that is incendiary tracer or explosive because those inherently do have a heat generating mechanism, and then for those that are licensed to possess and own explosive rounds, there are some rounds out there that- the Raufoss round, if you want to look at an impressive one, is a .50 caliber round that has explosiveness, has a titanium core penetrator…but that's primarily for military applications- so in that we're not restricting or prohibiting anyone from being able to possess, own or purchase any of those types of ammunition,” Miller said. “We're not restricting or impacting anyone's ability to practice recreational sporting use to discharge a weapon. It would be strictly addressing the type of targets that would be prohibited from being utilized. Obviously, paper targets, rubber tires, wood targets, anything that would reduce the probability of a ricochet or creating sparks- perfectly fine.”
Another part of the amendment would be to prohibit the burning of trash, which is not prohibited under a typical burn ban.
“However, given the extreme drought conditions that we're in, I discussed this with Mr. Vaden and Mr. Belt as well,” Miller said. “We believe that to prohibit the burning of trash for a period of time is warranted, giving the extreme conditions. If in fact we get some relief, we could then rescind that one portion of the declaration to allow people to burn trash or as another option, if this goes on for several weeks, we could designate a day when all, coordinating with Mr. Vaden in our fire departments, so that people for trash purposes only could burn trash for a period of time, say on a Saturday morning…everybody would be designated in the county to borrow their trash, knowing that we had all of our cars many of our volunteer fire departments on the ready to be able to support anything that may come out of that.”
Another part of the amendment would be to change the water requirements for welders, etc.
“Currently under the burn ban, for welders, it says a water source, and there's no criteria beyond a water source,” Miller said. “We would in fact establish a minimum of 20 gallons to be on hand, identify that there must be the capability to spray that, and also stipulate that there must be a backup to that, whether that be a handheld fire extinguisher or another spray type device, but that would give a specified quantity of water and a delivery mechanism, and it would involve not just one particular sector- it would be any activity that involves cutting, welding or grinding in a non-enclosed hardened surface area, so basically outdoors.”
Commissioner Kyle Matthews made a motion to table the item until the court has it officially in writing.
Commissioner Scott Weddell said he wanted to hear more about the enforcement of this and what repercussions there would be.
Currently, at this point, this offense would be a Class C Misdemeanor, which would be stipulated in the order, Miller said.
Miller added that the proposed amendment to the disaster declaration would no prohibit the ownership, possession or purchase of types of munitions nor would it prohibit a person from discharging a firearm.
“It prohibits you from discharging that type of round, given the conditions that we’re currently in,” Miller said. “It is not tied to the burn ban. It’s tied to the critical drought conditions and the declaration of local disaster.”
Sheriff Scott Williams asked for clarification on this point, specifically regarding when the proposed prohibition would be lifted and whether it would be after the local disaster due to critical drought conditions is lifted, which Miller confirmed to be true.
“That’s specifically why we addressed types of ammunitions, as opposed to the discharge or use of a personal firearm,” Miller said. “There’s nothing that’s restricting you from shooting ball ammo, fragmentary ammunition. There are no restrictions there. It’s specifically for those types of ammunition that have some type of incendiary tracer or explosive attribute to them that would create an additional risk, above and beyond just regular ammunition, for sporting and recreational use, and again, this will be sporting and recreational use. There is nothing that would prohibit the discharge of any of those munitions to protect yourself or your personal property under the rules of self-defense.”