Hershel Lee

Smokers attending the Austin City Limits music festival may be constrained for the second year in a row because of a burn ban set for all of Travis County.

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved a ban on all outdoor burning after moisture readings indicated the soil was drying up. In the wake of the Bastrop County complex fire, which destroyed more than 30,000 acres, the county also issued a burn ban last year that restricted smoking at Zilker Park, where ACL is held. Travis County fire marshal Hershel Lee said only those who abide by hot work procedures will be allowed to burn anything.

He did not comment on whether smoking restrictions will be seen at this year’s ACL festival. Last year, a ban restricted smoking and building fires at ACL, forcing patrons to remove themselves from the grounds before lighting up.

“Only those who abide by the hot work procedures of cutting, welding and grinding are the exception,” he said.

Procedures include making sure that the surrounding 25 feet of workspace is free from vegetation, always having a fire extinguisher handy and making sure a fire watch person is nearby at all times.

Biology junior Alex Moore bought tickets for the upcoming festival and said she thinks it is a smart idea to initiate a smoking ban.

“Although personally I don’t smoke cigarettes, I completely understand the seriousness of a burn ban and would understand if a smoking ban was implemented,” Moore said.

She did, however, have other concerns.

“Do you know if the ban includes marijuana? Because if so, I’m going to have to get high beforehand,” Moore said.

Much of Texas will have to go without the rockets’ red glare to illuminate the stars and stripes this Fourth of July because the sale and personal use of fireworks are banned in Travis and surrounding counties after dry conditions have increased the risk of wildfires. Many cities, including Austin, have also canceled their annual fireworks displays.

Ninety-six percent of the state is experiencing a drought that started in October, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and on Monday the USDA responded to the harsh conditions by declaring 213 of Texas’ 254 counties primary natural disaster areas. Individual counties had already responded to the drought. As of Monday, 164 counties had fireworks bans, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, with bans pending in six counties. As of Wednesday, 236 counties had burn bans, according to the Texas Forestry Service.

“Travis County has been under a burn ban since December 2010, and the conditions have progressed to the point where we are now,” said Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee. “The number of outdoor fires is alarming to us.”

Although counties’ fire marshals can give permits for public fireworks displays during bans, Lee said there won’t be any public fireworks displays in Travis County because the next two weeks’ weather forecast does not include rain or moisture. Lee said that using fireworks during a ban is a Class C misdemeanor.

“What the public needs to understand is citations can be issued and then they have to appear in court and pay a fine of up to $500,” Lee said.

Georgetown, located adjacent to Williamson County, is one of the few cities in Central Texas still planning on having its July Fourth fireworks display.

“We’ve had a number of meetings to talk about [our fireworks display], starting a few weeks ago when Austin and Pflugerville were some of the first to cancel theirs,” said city of Georgetown spokesman Keith Hutchinson. “We feel like conditions are going to be such that there’s not a significant risk of fire in the fall zone.”

Hutchinson said the city is taking extra precautions this year, including adding more fire trucks and personnel and using volunteer spotters to keep an eye out for fires from the public display. Because so many public fireworks displays in Central Texas have been canceled, Hutchinson said Georgetown is expecting more visitors than normal this year.

Psychology junior Albert Chavez said because of the fireworks bans he won’t be attending any public Fourth of July celebrations, but instead will spend time at Barton Springs with his friends.

“I was going to Dallas to watch the fireworks display, but then I heard about the bans across the state, so I’m not bothering,” Chavez said.

Printed on 06/30/2011 as: Dry weather tampers with Travis County Fourth of July