Hot Austin weather means more wildfire, drowning risk


Wildfire risk will probably increase as droughtlike conditions settle in, according to fire marshal.

Lakes are full, increasing the danger of drowning.

Weather forecasters and public safety officials have a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty message for the Austin area:

This week won’t be particularly humid, and the one-day count of 67 fires on July 4 probably won’t be repeated. But people should still be careful not to start grass fires, be cautious when swimming in Lake Travis and remember to stay hydrated because temperatures of nearly 100 degrees can do unpleasant things to people.

As high temperatures and sunshine persist in the region, the risk for wildfires will probably spike by next week, authorities say.

“We’re not in a period of true drought yet … but we’ll probably move into true drought conditions in the next week,” Travis County Chief Fire Marshal Tony Callaway told the American-Statesman.

National Weather Service forecasts call for temperatures in the high 90s for the rest of this week in Austin. That is a couple of degrees warmer than the norm for this time of year. But the humidity that caused the weather service to issue multiple heat advisories in late June should not be present this week, as heat indexes (what it feels like outside) are expected to stay in the low 100s, as opposed to around 110, said Brett Williams, a weather service forecaster.

“Austin should be dry at least through the end of the week,” Williams said.

The wildfire risk in the area could actually be worse than it seems. Soil moisture readings suggest that Travis County is buffered relatively well. But under the glare of the summer sun, the humidity has been dropping to risky levels during the afternoon in pockets around the county, Callaway said. The Texas A&M Forest Service places the region at moderate wildfire risk. Travis County is also basically encircled by a ring of abnormally dry conditions that have settled over the surrounding counties, according to the most recent United States Drought Monitor report.

Thus, Travis County is under a burn ban, as are Hays and Bastrop counties.

Callaway said the areas at most risk for fires are along roadsides. Most of the problems comes from cars and trucks with exhaust problems, other mechanical issues or chains that heat up when dragged along the ground. Fire officials also say drivers should not flick cigarettes out the window — at this time of year or any other time.

Callaway offered a note of caution to those with leftover fireworks from the Fourth. Due to a quirk in state law, burn bans do not cover fireworks, but anyone who shoots off fireworks that cause damage is legally liable for the damage, Callaway said.

The health of the region’s lakes, though good overall, also presents risks that were apparent last week.

In years when Lake Travis is nearly full, more people swim or boat on it, increasing the odds that someone could overlook dangers such as banks that are so steep they can effectively disappear from under foot in a seemingly shallow area. The lake is really just a fairly steep canyon that people have filled up, so someone “standing in 2 feet of water can take a step into 15 feet of water,” Travis County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark said.

On Monday, the sheriff’s office provided the identities of a man who disappeared July 9 in the Pedernales River and was found dead (Randy Hinkle, 57) and one who died in a boating incident on Lake Travis (Saugata Ghosh, 34).

In summer 2015, when the lakes had yet to recover from a prolonged drought, the sheriff’s office responded to two drownings, Dark said. Last year, with the lakes full, nine bodies were recovered from Lake Travis and the Pedernales River. Four have been recovered this year, Dark said.

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