TEXAS — Light a fire in Angelina County today, and chances are high you’ll be issued a ticket that could cost at least $500.
The stiffer enforcement comes after Angelina County Judge Joe Berry issued a zero tolerance policy for those violating the burn ban amid reports of possible arson activity in East Texas making a dangerous situation even more so.
Angelina County Sheriff Kent Henson authorized all deputies to issue tickets to those breaking the outdoor burn ban, Cpt. Tony Galloway said during an emergency management meeting called by Berry Wednesday afternoon in response to severe wildfire potential in and around the county.
The city of Lufkin will also be writing tickets, instead of warnings, to those burning within city limits as of noon Thursday, said Lufkin Fire Marshal Duane Freeman.
The new “zero tolerance” policy was spurred by Angelina County’s severe wildfire conditions, which are only expected to worsen during the next month, cautioned Ron Bertsch, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, to county and city officials.
At least 116 acres are known to have experienced wildfire since Nov. 17, 2005, according to Connie Powers with the Gila National Forest office in New Mexico who is assisting the Texas Forest Service in Lufkin. However, this number may not be accurate as many Angelina County volunteer fire departments are not reporting fire stats to the Texas Forest Service which could help them qualify for reimbursement. If the reason is lack of a computer, the Texas Forest Service will provide one, said Bobby Young with TFS.
Arson is suspected in several fires, including one on East Tex Road where several homes were nearly burned up, said Young. A delayed start mechanism is suspected in these cases, he said.
“We think the recent rash of arson fires in the county are likely caused by one person, but this is speculative,” Powers said in an e-mail interview. “Vigorous arson investigation is currently proceeding, with no definitive conclusions as yet.”
Public cooperation is essential to help apprehend the arsonist and protect lives and property, she said.
“Anyone with knowledge about the suspicious fires and/or description of any person and/or vehicles seen near or leaving the scene of an arson fire is asked to report the information to local law enforcement officers or to the toll-free arson hot line: 1-800-364-3470,” states a Texas Forest Service press release.
Take note of strange vehicles or persons leaving an area that erupts into flames 10 minutes later, Young said.
“Do not confront suspicious persons yourself,” said Gary Bennett, chief TFS law enforcement officer, in the press release. “Get the vehicle license number and report this and any other descriptive information to local law enforcement authorities or the toll free arson hot line. “Accidental fires are enough of a threat to Texans without having someone deliberately setting fires.”
Have a camera or cell phone? Take a picture to track suspicious vehicle license information.
Digital pictures of fires and suspects may be forwarded by e-mail to the city of Lufkin, said Freeman whose e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You may be eligible for a reward of up to $2,000 if your information leads to the arrest and grand jury indictment of the person or persons responsible for arson,” TFS stated.
“Arson, as it applies to wildland fires, is any fire deliberately set on the property of others or on state property, such as right-of-ways,” Powers said. “Wildland arson is a felony offense punishable by a prison term of 2 to 99 years, or life and a fine of up to $10,000. A thorough explanation can be reviewed at: http://www.tamu.edu/ticc/arson%20law%20and%20penalty.pdf.”
Outdoor burning in city limits is against city ordinances residents can put both their trash and their yard waste at the curb for pickup, Assistant City Manager Kenneth Williams said.
“It’s against state law” to burn within city limits, added Bobby Young with the Texas Forest Service.
Even though a county-wide ban on outdoor burning and fireworks was re-enacted over the Christmas holidays, people have continued to ignite firecrackers as well as debris burns, Berry said.
“Saturday night they must have burned up over $1,000 worth of fireworks right around my home as revenge,” Berry said.
From the stroke of the New Year through the end of Monday, the Fuller Springs Volunteer Fire Department responded to 13 calls, one of which was caused by fire works, according to Bobby Cranford, Fuller Springs fire chief and president of the Angelina Volunteer Fire Department Association.
This disregard of county issued-burn bans goes back to the lack, or absence, of enforcement in past years, Cranford said, asking Berry to go on record with the zero tolerance policy a degree of action Bertsch said is necessary.
“We need a zero-tolerance policy,” Bertsch said. “Zavalla could easily look like Cross Plains.”
“That’s what we are here for,” Berry agreed. “We are to the point we have to stop it. The era of ‘this is my land and I’ll burn what I want when I want’ is over. “Sorry folks, we are past that point.”
Since Gov. Rick Perry has declared Texas a state of disaster, Young said the volunteer fire departments may be eligible for financial assistance and the county for additional law enforcement.
“Fuel is killing us,” Cranford said prior to the meeting. “Out of our $500 monthly budget, $450 was spent on fuel in December. That left us with $50 to pay insurance, utilities and upkeep of the trucks.”
Aerial fireworks are strictly forbidden during periods extreme fire danger such as we have had recently, Powers said.
Fire conditions are so severe in Angelina County, and brush fires so rampant, that anyone observing an outdoor fire is encouraged to call it in, said Angelina County Emergency Management Coordinator A.W. Wright.
Firecracker use, improper disposal of cigarette butts that cause a fire, and debris burns that are under control should be reported to the county dispatcher’s non-emergency number 634-3331 according to Galloway. And in the city of Lufkin they should be reported to 633-0356, Freeman said. These illegal fires will be responded to by a deputy, constable, state trooper or police officer who should remain until the fire is completely dismantled, Young said.
To deter crank calls, because of the expense involved in sending out a fire truck or limited law enforcement personnel, all callers must submit their own name, Galloway and Freeman said. However, callers may ask the dispatcher to keep their information private to avoid neighborhood disputes, they said.