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Recent rains bring more than floods: Watch for snakes

Interstate 35W in Fort Worth looking south from Oakhurst Scenic Drive is bordered by tall weeds on both sides. The long stretch of wet weather has been good for making weeds grow like weeds, which presents hazards ranging from snakes to wildfire risk.
Interstate 35W in Fort Worth looking south from Oakhurst Scenic Drive is bordered by tall weeds on both sides. The long stretch of wet weather has been good for making weeds grow like weeds, which presents hazards ranging from snakes to wildfire risk. Star-Telegram

Buster Tuggle was atop his house, reaching into the long branches of a cottonwood with a trimmer, unaware of a water moccasin wrapped around a nearby branch.

Tuggle, 61, owner of Hare’s Nursery in Arlington, also didn’t see the snake when he sawed it in two, along with an armful of tree limbs.

His sister Joyce was the first to see it when it smacked on the ground next to her.

“His head was attached to the end I was at, and he was still trying to bite,” said Joyce, who quickly grabbed a hoe to finish off the intruder.

The almost 17 inches of rain last month may not have produced that kind of drama in every encounter, but a lot of people have found an array of critters in their yards, garages and homes that have never visited before.

Snakes. Wildfires. Allergies. West Nile virus.

Summer could bring its own menacing, pesky problems as North Texas dries out. Grass is already extremely tall along highways and in parks and other public spaces. And the vegetation, fed by moisture-rich soil, likely will continue to grow for weeks.

As spring turns to summer, the grass could become a serious fire hazard if the region experiences a prolonged dry spell, officials said.

And healthcare officials are warning that the tall grass and large pockets of standing water could cause havoc for sufferers of grass and mold allergies and also create a spike in West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Area cities and other governments say they likely won’t be able to cut the grass quick enough to eliminate the hazards.

No rain is in the Dallas-Fort Worth forecast for the next week or so, and temperatures are expected to climb into the 90s.

Snakes and other critters

Turtles, frogs, earthworms, rabbits and many others, along with the predators — snakes, bobcats, coyotes — that follow them have been in unusually close proximity to homeowners.

Dr. Ketan Trivedi, medical director of the emergency department at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, talks about snake bites and treatment.

Experts say the appearance of snakes and other wildlife will be temporary. Of course, be cautious, they say, but it’s not a Planet of the Snakes invasion due to deep-sea atomic testing.

“When floodwaters rise, you’re going to see a lot of animals,” said Misty Wellner, a former naturalist with the River Legacy Living Science Center in Arlington and now its volunteer manager. “When you have a disaster like this, they’re going to move to dry land, just like we are.”

Residential areas are typically well drained with modern storm sewer systems, and animals may look for temporary homes in those areas while their usual habitat is under water, said Derek Broman, Texas Parks and Wildlife urban wildlife biologist based at Joe Pool Lake.

“This is a 500-year flood, so none of the current generation of animals is used to this,” he said. “As things start to recede, a lot of the animals should go back into hiding. A lot of the animals don’t want to be out in the open. Some of the higher grasses might be providing cover for some of those animals for the time being.”

Snakes are showing up with greater frequency in Haslet, Mayor Bob Golden said. “Typically, they are being swept downstream in the floodplain areas of the city, so most of the increased activity is in those locations. We have no reported bites.”

The animal services department that serves Colleyville, Keller and Southlake “is answering about four snake calls a day in the three-city area,” Colleyville spokeswoman Mona Gandy said. “Typically they would get two a day.”

Roanoke police warned residents that it has taken several calls recently about snakes.

Water moccasins, or cottonmouths, prefer to live near water, not in it, said herpetologist Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms (cold-blooded animals) at the Fort Worth Zoo. They might climb to a low branch to get out of water.

Rat snakes and other harmless varieties will climb a tree when they think a bird egg meal awaits, she said.

The Western cottonmouth is among the four most dangerously poisonous, along with the Western diamondback rattlesnake, the copperhead and the coral snake — the smallest, most colorful of the lot, with the most potent venom, Barber said.

Dr. Ketan Trivedi, emergency department medical director at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, which has treated two snake bites in recent days, reminds people to wear boots and long pants and be careful around bushes when reaching for things.

If bitten, he said, don’t waste time going online to try to identify the snake. Instead, go to the emergency room of a full-service hospital. You likely would be put on painkillers and kept overnight.

Even if bitten by a harmless snake, go to an emergency room to have the wound cleaned and to get antibiotics, as well as a tetanus shot. Both the snake’s teeth and your skin have bacteria that can cause infection.

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7186

Twitter: @Kaddmann_ST

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

Snake safety

What should residents do if they spot an unwanted critter near their home? The best advice is to not panic and to give the animal space. Chances are it will leave shortly after it spots you.

Also, residents should not feed wildlife and should avoid leaving garbage or pet food outdoors.

Those who spot a snake inside their home or have a similar potentially dangerous situation to report are urged to contact their city animal control.

Other tips:

▪ Clean up your yard. Don’t leave buckets, log piles and other clutter lying around.

▪ If your door has a gap of a quarter inch or more, attach a door sweep to the bottom.

▪ Stay away from the disembodied head of a poisonous snake. It can still bite because its slow metabolism makes for a slow death.

Allergies, disease

Area healthcare providers are bracing for a possible increase in mosquito-borne illnesses, including West Nile virus and equine encephalitis. The tall grass hides pockets of standing water, an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes that can then carry and transmit diseases to humans.

“The potential for West Nile scares me,” said Bradley Jones, a physician specializing in internal medicine at Baylor Health Care System in north Irving.

Medical professionals also are preparing for more problems with patients who suffer from allergies or asthma.

Those with allergies to grass and mold could be in for a long summer, and the moist earth could set the stage for major ragweed allergy problems in the fall, Jones said.

Road hazard

Grass is already waist-high along some highways. State officials say it could be many more days before the ground is dry enough for mowing crews to get their equipment onto the soaked embankments. Getting all the right-of-way mowed could take weeks.

“We mow three to four times a year depending on the amount of rain we receive,” said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Val Lopez. “Presently, the majority of our right-of-way area is still wet or actually still draining, so mowing will start when it becomes more appropriate to do so.”

The agency will also perform more frequent mowing in areas where the grass can block motorists’ view of oncoming traffic. “We do mow in between cycles,” he said, “where line-of-sight is a concern.”

Fire danger

It’s a welcome relief that no rain is in the forecast for North Texas, as least for the rest of this week.

But if the region were to enter into a longer-term dry spell, the grass in public spaces — especially along highways — could become tinder for wildfires, said Tom Spencer, predictive services department head for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

“If we go three or four weeks without any rain, and with hot weather, it could possibly become a hazard at that point,” he Spencer. “The soil has to go through a moisture loss transition. We’re in good shape right now.”

“How we come out of June sets the pace for the rest of the summer. If we have a dry June, it certainly could have an effect. The traditional summer fire season is July through early September.”

Texas’ worst wildfire season in recent memory — probably the last 50 years, Spencer said — was 2011, when 31,453 fires charred 4,011,709 acres.

Overgrown parks

In Fort Worth, mowing had been delayed more than a week on more than 4,000 acres at 250 parks, Richard Zavala, director of parks and community services, told the City Council.

The grass is so tall it is taking twice as long to mow the parks, he said.

Also, about half the city’s park system is in a floodplain.

“In low-lying areas, ground saturation has prevented mowing equipment from accessing the site,” he said.

Parks employees also are responsible for mowing 1,100 foreclosed properties and 156 miles of road medians and 376 miles of right-of-way.

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