In the middle of winter, thoughts of a drought are typically furthest from the minds of most ordinary people. But ranchers, gardeners and emergency officials alike are nervously watching rain gauges as Ellis County grows drier and drier.

The Texas Water Development Board reported this week that Ellis County is in the second stage of drought conditions, which is “moderate.” Over the last month, the status has worsened from the “abnormally dry” conditions in December.

Fortunately, area reservoirs have plenty of capacity and there is an abundance of drinking water. Lake Waxahachie was at 91.7 percent capacity as of Monday, while Lake Bardwell was at 84.4 percent. Cedar Creek, another reservoir that serves Ellis County utilities, was 87.4 percent full.

However, because of dry, dormant vegetation and often-strong winds in the winter and early spring months, grass fires can be just as big a hazard in wintertime as they can be in the depths of a Texas summer.

County fire marshal Tim Birdwell reported at last week’s Ellis County Commissioners’ Court meeting that things are getting drier, but at this time no burn ban is deemed necessary. But that could change if no significant precipitation is received soon.

“The numbers are climbing every couple of weeks,” Birdwell said. “But they’re not to the point yet where we need to incorporate or do a burn ban.”

The most recent ban was enacted by commissioners in July 2018 and was lifted a month later. The last winter burn ban in Ellis County was instituted in December 2017. Burn bans typically last for 90 days upon implementation but can be lifted early by a vote of commissioners when a drought breaks.

The fire marshal’s office uses the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which is calculated daily and ranges from zero to 800. A reading of zero represents no moisture depletion, and 800 represents entirely dry conditions.

Birdwell had told commissioners in a previous meeting that his office will implement a burn ban when the KBDI reaches 600. In winter, because of all the dormant vegetation, a burn ban may be needed when the index is as low as 500.

As of Monday, the drought index for Ellis County stood at about 400, according to the U.S. Forestry Service Wildland Fire Assessment System.

A winter drought seems counterintuitive when discussing plant health, but an extreme dry spell in winter can be damaging to trees and plants. Deciduous plants don’t “die” in winter; they become dormant and re-emerge in the spring. A winter drought, however, can damage roots and weaken some plant species to the point where they struggle to survive. Also, winter wheat harvests can be sharply curtailed by extreme drought.

While parts of North Texas, West Texas and the Panhandle received beneficial rainfall last week and the overall map showed improvement for the state, a shortage of precipitation across a wide swath — which includes Ellis County — means that lots of fuel on the ground is starting to get very dry.

This week, rain is in the forecast for Thursday for Ellis County, with a chance of storms on Friday. The next chance of rain after that is a week from Wednesday.