Firefighters battle brush fires on Independence Day



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Posted on July 5, 2013 at 9:01 AM

Updated Friday, Jul 5 at 6:16 PM

AUSTIN -- If you plan to continue your Fourth of July celebrations with fireworks, area fire officials want you to be aware that they can quickly turn dangerous. In fact, they've already sparked some fires in our area.

As of Friday morning, there have been 54 grass and trash fires reported in the past 24 hours. Twenty-four of the fires were out in the county, the other 30 were in the city limits of Austin.

Most of the 54 fires were small, in people's yards. Fire officials believe most were connected to fireworks.

"A lot of them were on city streets, in the medians, in yards. Very quickly contained," said Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Thayer Smith.

The largest was on Agatha Circle in East Austin. It began about 3 p.m. Thursday, and Friday morning, it was still smoldering. Crews had to be called back in to put out some hot spots at the base of a tree that crews likely did not see Thursday.

Using fireworks inside the city is illegal. It's also illegal to own or posses them inside Austin, and up to 5,000 feet outside the city limits.

A ticket for breaking that law could cost you nearly $600. If you hurt someone or cause damage to property, you could face assault or arson charges. Both of those are felony crimes.

"They're banned in the city for a reason. We've had large fires before and it's just too dangerous in an urban setting to use fireworks," said Smith.

If you know of anyone breaking that law, Austin police ask that you call 311 to report them.

Outside the city is a different story. Fireworks are not illegal in Travis County, but the county is in a burn bad and the Fire Marshal strongly recommends that you leave fireworks to the professionals.

If you do decide to use them, he recommends you follow these safety tips.

  • Only light them outdoors
  • Do not give them to children
  • Keep water at hand to dispose of them
  • If they don't light, put them in that water. Do not try and re-light them

There's an extra element of danger to the situation this year -- Central Texas is in a drought. Officials say although the relatively wet spring seems like it would be a blessing, it could end up causing even more problems.

"It's kind of a 'Catch 22.' It helped us in the short term because it improved the conditions, but in the long term, if we don't sustain that rain it's also gonna hurt us because it grew all those spring fuels that now are gonna be available this summer when everything dries out," Smith explained.

Smith says a cedar tree in the scorched area on Agatha circle is a perfect example of that. It was alive, yet it went up in flames -- what Smith calls "torching."

It's the first torching he's seen this season, which means conditions are changing and the moisture inside trees is dropping. That makes trees more susceptible to fire. Unless Central Texas gets more rain soon, Smith says fires may no longer stay close to the ground but instead travel up the tree and burn more area more quickly.

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