A tossed cigarette that landed just short of a nearby burn barrel likely caused last weekend’s grass fire, which burned for two days and scorched 227 acres northwest of New Braunfels,
Comal County Fire Marshal Kory Klabunde said.
“It looked like it started from smoking materials ... it doesn’t take much to get a grass fire going,” Klabunde told county commissioners on Thursday.
Leading efforts to contain the blaze, which involved properties between Purgatory Road and Wegner Road, were Canyon Lake Fire and EMS crews that arrived around 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5.
Dozens of responders from nearby agencies worked through Saturday to contain the fire, which was totally extinguished around 2 p.m. Monday.
“A lot of credit goes to Canyon Lake Fire and EMS and Chief Darren Brinkkoeter,” said Jeff Kelley, Comal County emergency management coordinator. “It was an aggressive fire that required an aggressive response, involving nine brush trucks and dozers.”
Kelley said three Texas A&M Forest Service airplanes combined to drop six loads of fire retardant, aided by a helicopter that made several trips to retrieve water from a reservoir on Wegner Ranch, where 172 acres were scorched. The forest service revised the total acreage burned from 226 to 227.
“The majority of the fire affected our property,” said Marshall Wegner, adding it amounted to large loss of grazing area for his herds of goats and cattle. “There are others who saw some fire damage, but burned grassland may not be an issue for non-ranchers but it’s a very big deal to those who depend on it.”
Brinkkoeter said the fire spread to within one or two miles of the Hays County line and near homes off in the Royal Forest subdivision before it was finally contained at 7:24 p.m.
The effort involved 19 fire units and more than 40 firefighters from the New Braunfels, South Hays County and San Marcos fire departments, Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department and Bulverde-Spring Branch Fire and EMS.
County fire investigators arrived at the scene Monday. Investigator Jason Cline viewed the area from Wegner property pasture and traced the possible source to subdivision residences in the 4000 block of Wegner Road.
In his report, Cline said the son of one residential homeowner, going door to door helping neighbors the day of the fire saw a hole in a burn barrel behind one residence. Cline tried to contact the property owner, who wasn’t home, but looked inside the barrel.
“We entered the property and could see obvious signs of a fire and attempted to knock on the door with no contact being made,” the report said. “I observed the burn barrel and looked inside the barrel and noticed a dried and weathered Burger King bag and a few plastic bottles, which led me to believe that this was not the cause of the fire.
“Although it did appear that the fire did start in this area. I observed a white cigarette butt near the barrel,” the report added. Cline followed up with the homeowner the following day.
After the man admitted he was a smoker, Cline showed him the cigarette butt near the burn barrel and explained how a discarded cigarette could have easily started a grass fire. The property owner “stated his cigarettes tossed on the ground had always gone out in the past and never been an issue,” Cline’s report said. “I advised (him) I believed the fire had started on his property by his discarded cigarettes.”
Klabunde said because the tossed cigarette wasn’t a malicious or intentional act, it didn’t violate the county’s burn ban, in place since July, which fines first-time scofflaws up to $500. The only recourse for property owners is filing a civil suit for damages, which Wegner calls a reversal of justice.
“If people had been killed, do you think he still wouldn’t be fined?” Wegner said. “I asked Mr. Klabunde if he could issue him a letter warning against that kind of activity and was told he would have check with (county attorneys).
“But he gets off scot-free and we have to pay the price … is that justice?”
Klabunde reported no damage to homes or structures, but Wegner said the fire left a significant mark on his property.
“Everyone might say (the fire damaged) only grass and oaks, it means we have to take our complete pasture, over 1,000 acres, out of commission to reseed as per Natural Resources Conservation Service guidelines,” Wegner said. “So it’s not an insignificant issue to us — it’s our livelihood.”