Highway signs along many Texas roads flash the same dire warning: extreme wildfire danger. Burn bans and local disaster declarations are spreading across the state in an attempt to keep scorching temperatures, high winds and low precipitation from erupting into wildfires. Use our interactive map to see which parts of the state have been hardest hit.
So far this year, the Texas Forest Service and local fire departments have responded to roughly 1,500 wildfires across Texas, the damage of which spreads across 2.5 million acres. (They’re currently fighting five uncontained fires statewide.) Local fire departments have responded to an additional 9,317 fires affecting 740,000 acres, bringing state totals for the year to approximately 11,000 fires damaging more than 3 million acres. To date, 1,339 structures have been destroyed, and fighting the fires has cost the state millions of dollars.
The leading contributor? A dearth of rain. Nearly 97 percent of the state is suffering some level of drought. Seventy percent of the state is at an ‘exceptional’ drought level, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s highest and most severe ranking, based on widespread crop and pasture losses, and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells.
On Tuesday, Texas received a national disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The declaration categorized 213 counties in Texas as primary natural disaster areas due to high winds, fires, heat and loss of crops. Farmers in the counties under the USDA's natural disaster declaration qualify for low interest emergency loans from the Farm Service Agency, and have up to eight months to apply for the assistance.
Meanwhile, the Texas Forest Service is reporting that all but 19 of Texas’ 254 counties have enacted burn bans, the most at any given time, and that local disaster declarations are mounting with the July 4 holiday approaching.
Burn bans prohibit certain types of outdoor fires, whereas local disaster declarations include prohibiting the sale and use of fireworks in addition to potentially banning certain activities such as outdoor grilling. Local disaster declarations generally last for 60 hours, but with a long, hot summer remaining, counties are looking to keep restrictions in place even longer. Recent disaster declarations have typically been accompanied by a letter to Gov. Rick Perry requesting an extension, often through July 5.
Several large urban counties, from Travis to Harris to El Paso, have issued local disaster declarations, keeping the possibility of July 4 fireworks sales at bay. (Local communities can still decide whether to have public displays.) Others have only banned certain types of fireworks.
Hays County issued its own disaster declaration June 15, banning the sale of all fireworks to its residents, but still intending to hold a public fireworks display. But when cities like Austin and San Antonio cancelled their public fireworks, Hays was forced to follow suit, for fear of being overrun with tourists from those two cities.
Hardin County declared a local state of disaster June 20. Hardin County includes Silsbee, home to Texas Fireworks Co., and their business is taking a hit now that use of their products has been curbed in so many regions.
“The bans are affecting us tremendously,” said Jeff Hunt, warehouse manager of Texas Fireworks. “It’s breaking a lot of people, and there’s lot of money invested in this. It’s going to be devastating.”
Texas Fireworks Co. also distributes wholesale fireworks to Louisiana and Arkansas, but Hunt estimated 85 percent of its sales come from Texas. Hunt said his business should survive despite being unable to sell to the majority of its customers during their busiest time of the year.
“It [isn’t] enough to pay the bills, but we’ve made just a little money,” Hunt said. “I have a half million dollar pay roll every year and it’s [going to] be hard — I owe the bank over a million dollars, and if I can’t sell this stuff, I can’t pay the bank.”