Victoria County fire marshal says burn was legal; no one was in danger

Feb. 1, 2013 at 12:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 31, 2013 at 8:01 p.m.

A billowing cloud of black smoke rises just north of the Victoria Regional Airport. About  400 acres of cattle land was cleared with a  controlled burn Friday.

A billowing cloud of black smoke rises just north of the Victoria Regional Airport. About 400 acres of cattle land was cleared with a controlled burn Friday.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

For several hours Friday, an ominous column of black smoke darkened the horizon east of Victoria.

The cause: A 400-acre controlled burn at Diebel Ranch on Salem Road that caught the attention of residents and triggered a buzz on social media sites.

This time of year - after the chances of freezing winter temperatures have passed, and brush is dry - is prime time for ranchers to clean the slate for the upcoming spring season, said Victoria County Fire Marshal Ron Pray.

The smoke could have been worrisome for those with respiratory problems, but they were safe, Pray said.

"The biggest thing is to stay indoors, and if you have to, turn off the air conditioner," Pray said about those with respiratory issues. "I don't think a lot of people got affected in town. They affected the least amount of population."

The owners of the ranch strictly followedthe Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's guidelines for outdoor burning, he said.

Under the guidelines, a burn must not be conducted within 300 feet from a home. Also, winds must be just right so that either none or a minimal amount of smoke enters a densely populated area.

Victoria mother Amanda Wendel worries about controlled burns because of her son's compromised respiratory system.

He's been to hospitals before because of controlled burns. She said there is no way to keep smoke out of the home when the wind is blowing.

She would like to see some changes in how brush is handled for the sake of her son and anyone else with respiratory problems.

Wendel would also like to be notified when a burn is scheduled - a step that could prevent future respiratory incidents, she said.

"The problem is that no matter which way the wind is blowing, it will affect someone who will, in turn, have a medical issue of some sort," she said. "I think chipping is the most friendly route to go."

On Friday, the burning started at 8 a.m. but about noon the smoke intensified because the flames reached the rosehedge and heavier brush. For the most part, smoke went straight up, but some did move through the Victoria Mall area, Pray said.

Chris Kallus, professor and program chair of the respiratory care program at Victoria College, said it's best for those with breathing issues to stay indoors while the burn is occurring.

"When the air quality becomes very unhealthy, stay indoors," he said.

Even though those controlling the burn do what they can to keep it as far away from people as possible, the fine particles in the smoke could still cause symptoms in people with ultra sensitivities to air quality, he said.

"Just make sure you have your medicines handy," he said.



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