The county and city volunteer fire departments that responded to the recent wildfires in Somervell and Bosque counties will be able to recoup their expenses thanks to federal emergency management funds.
In another development related to the fires, landowners and property owners whose land was burned or fences damaged from the fire and emergency reponse are contemplating civil legal action against the persons responsible for starting the Bosque County blaze.
Dewey Ratliff, coordinator of emergency management for Bosque County, said that the county has been notified that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has determined that the county will qualify for a Fire Management Assistance Grant. The county hasn't estimated how much it cost to fight the wildfire and is gathering documentation. Once that estimate is submitted, it could take up to a year to get the reimbursement, Ratliff said.
Somervell County Judge Mike Ford said the county also has been contacted about being eligible for reimbursement and will pursue that as well.
The county's emergency management coordinator, Dwayne Griffin, is investigating what needs to be done to receive the funding, Ford said.
Property owners with damage to fences also are considering their options and “if there are repercussions for the people who started the fires or sources of federal reimbursement," Ford said.
County officials are getting a debriefing today on the fire, the response and the aftermath.
The Texas Forest Service named the Bosque County fire the “Big Trickle Ranch Fire,” but nearby property owners said the fire actually began on an adjacent ranch, the Antler Ranch. Both are sportsemen ranches owned by Donovan Williamson of the Williamson-Dickie clothing company in Fort Worth.
One of the ranches had been burning underbrush in a so-called “prescribed burn” the Thursday before the fires began spreading out of control on Friday, March 11. Prescribed burns call for a licensed manager to supervise the fire and make sure there is an adequate supply of water readily available.
Ratliff said he had not “officially confirmed one way or the other” that such a person was watching the fire. But since the county did not order a burn ban until that Friday, there is no legal action to take against the people who started the fire, he added.
“From the county's standpoint, there's no action because they didn't break any rules,” Ratliff said.
But, he added, “I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some civil action from some private landowners.”
Ratliff said it's frustrating for county officials because current state statutes do not allow counties to participate in permit systems for burning. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has jurisdiction and is the only entity to issue burn permits.
The TCEQ said that about 200 counties in Texas have had burn bans during the winter and that TCEQ rules “prohibit most outdoor burning, with some exceptions.” But one of those exceptions is burning for agricultural reasons, such as burning underbrush.
“Technically, it starts by saying that outdoor burning is illegal,” Ratliff said. “But it's not enforced.”
If people who burned had to sign a statement and a policy were included that people who let fires get out of control had to pay for the fuel and expenses of firefighters, “I think more people would think twice before lighting the fires,” Ratliff said. “The bottom line is that people need to be aware and responsible. If they light the fire, they should be held accountable.”
Ford said that Somervell County has been “historically cautious” in calling for a fire ban because “so many people make use of that as a tool for their property.”
But, he added, “it's almost ridiculous to think of the wind blowing 40 miles an hour and the brush being so dry and so high to allow any burning.”