By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Light up the grill for July 4 and get six months in jail under stringent new burn rules imposed by one Texas county in response to a devastating and record-breaking drought.
An effort to stem wildfires, which have already taken out millions of acres of ranch land here, has encroached on the unofficial Texas pastime of backyard grilling -- as much a part of Texas as football and pick-up trucks.
Officials in Guadalupe County, east of San Antonio, have issued an emergency burn ban that outlaws "all outdoor flames," said Fire Marshall Kelly Kistner.
"Barbecue grills and pits come under that order as well," Kistner told Reuters on Tuesday. "Everything that would produce a flame outside is covered by that order." So celebrated is the tradition of grilling in Texas that many parts of the state claim the title of "Barbecue Capital of the World," and neighborhoods and employers routinely stage contests to crown the best barbecue.
And football tailgate parties? Legendary.
Burn bans are fairly common in the Lone Star State -- but rarely do they include grills and barbecues.
To rub salt in the wound, the order stretches until July 5, meaning that the Great Texas Pastime of barbecuing on the Fourth of July will be a Class B misdemeanor in the county - carrying a punishment up to six months in jail or a fine of $1,000.
But officials said oven-cooked ribs are a small price to pay for safety.
"We're deadly dry," Kistner said. "One spark could burn a home, take a life."
Texas has seen close to three million acres of ranch land scorched by massive wildfires this year, mainly fueled by the dry conditions. Kistner said Guadalupe County has been "lucky" not have had any brush fires - and hopes to keep it that way.
The drought in most of Texas is the third worst in more than a century, said state climatologist John Nielson-Gammon.
"The entire period of October through May was the driest ever, and ranks as the driest eight consecutive months ever in Texas," he said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)