No burn ban for Monroe County, but new tornado siren software

A dozen counties in southern Indiana have declared burn bans in the last few days—Crawford and Jefferson counties were the first to declare one, on Sept. 19.

But Monroe County is not among them.

The county’s director of emergency management, Allison Moore, told the board of commissioners on Wednesday, at their regular weekly meeting, that the Monroe County Fire Chief’s Association is monitoring the situation and will recommend a ban if they think one is needed.

Burn bans weren’t on the meeting agenda—Moore talked about them during public comment time. It was a point of information for commissioners.

But a different emergency management issue required a vote of the commissioners. They approved unanimously the purchase of new software from Federal Sirens for $4,021.50—for monitoring of the county’s 40 tornado warning sirens.

Burn bans, Dry Weather

Moore told commissioners on Wednesday that some other counties around Monroe County had declared burn bans, but Monroe has not.

annotated burnban09-25-2019Moore laid out for commissioners the process for declaring a burn ban. The Monroe County Fire Chief’s Association—it includes Bloomington’s fire chief—plays a big role, she said. The chiefs can decide to make a recommendation for a ban on outdoor burning, which would go to the emergency manager, who would then  notify the commissioners, who could then enact a ban.

Moore said she and the chiefs rely on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for information about moisture content. But it’s a local decision, she said.

The county has not received any reports of leaf or grass fires, Moore said, so for now the fire chiefs are monitoring the situation.

Leaves and grass are what the DNR’s fire coordinator, Darren Bridges, and others in his line of work, call 1-hour fuels. That term means that it takes them one hour to dry out enough to become combustable, after they’re wet, according to Bridges. Thumb-sized stems are 10-hour fuels day fuels; firewood-size pieces of wood are 1,000-hour fuels, he said. Bridges told The Beacon that 90 percent of the leaves are still on trees, which keeps fuels on the ground shaded and helps slow down their drying speed.

Yellow = abnormally dry; orange = moderate drought (US Drought Monitor)

September has been drier than normal so far, according to Brad Herold, hydro-meteorological technician with the National Weather service in Indianapolis. He told The Beacon that since the first of this month, 1.2 inches of rain has fallen on Bloomington, which is 1.39 inches below the normal of 2.59 inches for the time period

September’s dry weather has not completely counterbalanced the wet spring in the total amount of rain so far this year. According to Herold, Bloomington has received 37.42 inches of rain so far, which is 1.64 inches above normal.

Herold said the forecast through the end of the week doesn’t currently show much better  than 20- to 30-percent chances for rain. The longer-term forecast is for higher-than-average temperatures.

The National Weather Service can issue “red flag” warnings, when the combination of moisture levels and winds add up to an increased fire danger. But no red flag warnings have been issued so far this year, Herold said. The last red flag warning came in May 2018, he told The Beacon.

The University of Nebraska’s US Drought Monitor maps from July 16 through Sept. 17 confirm the current abnormally dry (yellow) and moderate drought (orange) areas of Indiana south of Monroe County. In August the southern half of Monroe County showed up on the map as abnormally dry, but on the most recent map it’s drought-free.

Monroe Lake water levels reflect the relative dry period. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the US Army Corps of Engineer gauge showed a reading of 537.70 feet above sea level, just under the normal level of 538 feet. That’s a roughly 14-foot drop—from the elevated levels caused by an wet spring followed by a wet June—over the last two months. So current levels are around average for this time of year.

R-OUT-Lake-Monroe-Levels-2019-Highlight Sept 24 2019
Lake Monroe water levels from 1983 to now.

Tornado Software

Emergency Manager Allison Moore told commissioners on Wednesday that the computer that runs the tornado sirens needs an upgrade, and that means an upgrade to the software. So the request to commissioners was to approve the purchase of the software from Federal Sirens for $4,021.50.

Moore said the software is cloud-based, which means that she and others will be able to monitor from a mobile device the performance of the 40 sirens countywide—whether they sounded during a test, for how long, and what their battery levels are. Commissioners had a question about whether there was an inter-local agreement between Bloomington Police Department—the tornado computer is housed there. Moore told commissioners that she had access to the room where the computer is located.

One of the tornado sirens is location at the City of Bloomington’s service area, on Miller Drive, east of Henderson Street:

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