Nita Halbelt and Jenny Stegall were in full sprint mode on Monday. Funny, considering they make a living with their voices.

Halbelt and Stegall, dispatchers at the Henderson County Sheriff's Department, were run ragged by call after call regarding grass fires. And it wasn't just fires in this county on which they were taking calls, but calls for assistance for fires in neighboring Van Zandt and Anderson counties, as well.

There came a point when Halbelt and Stegall were forced to inform agencies calling for help that no one was left to assist. And that meant other agencies had to be called when there were medical emergencies that are often handled by volunteer fire departments.

“It was extremely hectic around here Monday,” said Tracy Rimpel, sergeant of communications for the sheriff's department. “They just got slammed.”

Slammed to the tune of around 80-100 calls in a matter of hours regarding 12 “major incident” fires, which resulted in 13 departments being called into the field. Multiple calls from the public were received on each fire.

The county's burn ban, which was called off late last week, was enacted once again by county commissioners in a special session Tuesday. Still, acres of land have burned and several structures have been caught in the grasp of the grass fires.

With that in mind, officials are hoping common sense rules as the New Year's holiday approaches. With conditions as dry as they are, it won't take much for another series of fires to start.

“If there's ever going to be a year to just skip fireworks, this would be the year,” Athens Assistant Fire Chief Tres Winn said.

Fireworks are illegal in the city of Athens, but residents inevitably bend the rules or travel just outside city limits to light them. Fireworks have not been banned countywide, meaning it will be up to each city to decide how to handle the issue in light of the dry conditions.

Forecasters aren't including rain in their reports for the last week of the year, and if it doesn't rain, 2005 will be the second driest year since the Athens Review began keeping rainfall levels in 1958. A puny quarter inch of rain has been recorded in December.

“There's no relief in sight,” Winn said. “It's going to take a whole lot of rain to get us caught up.”

And just a little spark to make matters worse.


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