Tri-county prepares for wildfires amid severe conditions

TRI-COUNTY — As the heat of another West Texas summer arrives in the tri-county, officials are raising concerns that drought and heat are creating conditions for fire.

When talking about his outlook for this year’s wildfire season, Gary Mitschke, emergency management coordinator for Presidio County, first expressed that every year is a concern, but followed that by saying, “We usually get the numbers we are getting now toward August and September,” indicating that this year’s conditions are exceptionally dry at a much earlier period in time.

Cinderela Guevara, judge of Presidio County, said, if necessary, the county “will declare another state of emergency,” within Presidio County. One of the things that this state of emergency might entail is regulating the sale and use of fireworks, which could possibly be prohibited for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.

The threat of wildfires in West Texas is more cyclical than solvable. In the past four months alone, the area experienced two major fires: the Holcombe Road fire and the Longfellow Complex fire, with the Longfellow impacting at least 6,000 acres and the Holcombe fire impacting an estimated 10,000.

Knowing this — and given the drought-stricken nature of the region — Brewster, Presidio and Jeff Davis counties have all implemented burn bans for their respective communities. For Brewster and Jeff Davis counties, this is no surprise, as both counties have been on burn bans since at least 2017. For Presidio County, however, this is recent, as their latest burn ban was implemented just last month.

Mitschke said he monitors the wildfire situation by checking the Texas Forest Service’s Keetch-Byram drought index that indicates drought and potential for wildfires on a scale from 1 to 800.

According to this index, a 575 or above is considered severe, and when speaking about Presidio County, Mitschke said that it is currently sitting at 588 “and climbing every day,” which he said is cause for concern.

Preventing fires can be tricky, said Mitschke, because implementing regulations and preparing trucks is essentially all he can do. Fires will happen, and “the most we can do is be prepared for them,” he said. He is trying to improve what he can, and this includes response times.

Currently, Mitschke, in conjunction with the county, is working on a project that could see water tankers placed at Presidio County airports in an attempt to combat fires. Currently these water tankers are located at the Fort Stockton airport, but under the project, they would be moved to Marfa.

The move to Marfa would hopefully achieve quicker response times. Currently, it takes “at least an hour” to reach communities in Presidio County from the water tankers in Fort Stockton, and that isn’t even considering the reload time required to continuously combat a fire. With the tankers placed in Marfa, response and reload times would look closer to “10 or 15 minutes,” depending on where the fire is.

As for how the county is preparing, Guevara said that she has met with the Red Cross to make sure that there “is always a general plan in mind” when handling wildfires that might arise. Guevara spoke on how that plan might look in the event of a fire.

“We have generators in different areas of the county, and we have invested in generators to assure that if for some reason there was no electricity in an area, we do have a place for people to go and there will be electricity,” said Guevara.

Guevara spoke about her goals going into wildfire season saying, “The goal is to have no fires,” but in the event of one, she expressed that preparations have been put in place to minimize the damage and, of course, keep the people living within the community safe.

When speaking about the burn ban in Presidio County, Guevara acknowledged that it expires on July 15, but said that “it is highly probable that we will go ahead and extend it, unless the conditions change drastically,” as the county is in the midst of a drought.

Both Mitschke and Guevara said that the community can help prevent wildfires by adhering to the burn ban that is in place and by also signing up for the county’s reverse 911 service that is designed to inform the community of possible dangers.