Last week, nearly 100 firefighters from across Texas loaded up and headed west to join thousands of colleagues in an extended battle against massive wildfires burning across Northern California, one of which has become the largest in that state’s history.
While the fires raging in California have garnered national attention and help from fire departments across the country, Texas faces its own particularly severe year for wildfires. Texas is on pace to see the highest number of wildfires in the state in seven years, according to Texas A&M Forest Service data.
As of Aug. 9, the Forest Service tallied 893 wildfires in Texas in 2018. That’s higher than the number of wildfires in each year from 2012 through 2017 — save 2013, which had 899 fires.
But as the effects of climate change have become more apparent in the past few decades, drought conditions persist throughout the state, more fires are likely, and more people are finding themselves in danger of losing their homes and even their lives, experts warn.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 78.5 percent of Texas was in drought conditions as of Aug. 7, with nearly 20 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. An estimated 14.3 million people were living in drought areas.
Below-normal rainfall in late May through July across the Hill Country and Central Texas has produced widespread, critical dryness in vegetation that can provide fuel to wildland fires, the forest service said.
Brad Smith, a fire behavior analyst for the forest service, said the state has been running above normal for both the number of fires that have occurred and the number of acres that have burned.
“Here in Texas, 2018 is the biggest fire year since 2011,” he said. “(From) 2012 through 2017, we were normal with fire occurrence and fire size. But my experience has been that each year is a little different. It’s not a steady thing.”
In 2011, as Central Texas withered in the throes of a historic drought, the most destructive wildfire in state history — the Bastrop Complex Fire — erupted over Labor Day weekend, burning a combined 34,000 acres.
Even before then, the forest service in 2008 tallied 1,540 fires that burned an average of 658 acres. The next year, 1,348 fires burned an average of 266 acres. Then in 2010, a total of 1,159 fires burned an average of 88 acres. But 2011 saw a whopping 3,276 fires that burned an average of 891 acres.
After 2011, the total number of fires and acres burned fell off. The highest number of fires from 2011 through 2017 was 899 in 2013. Those fires burned an average of 420 acres.
Smith said that from 2008 to 2011, Texas experienced a La Niña weather pattern, which typically translates into warmer, drier winters. That was part of the reason for the spike in fires, he said.
In 2007 and 2010, the state saw tropical weather patterns bring more moisture during the growing season, which created a more abundant fuel supply for fires.
Smith said that despite fluctuations, with peaks and troughs, Texas has seen an increase in wildfires over the past 30 years.
“We talk about fire seasons, but here in Texas, especially during the summer, we are always four weeks away from a fire season — four weeks and vegetation becomes susceptible to fire. We are at risk year-round. In the summer, 30 days is kind of a benchmark for drying because the heat evaporates the moisture faster,” Smith said.
Smith said unique recipes for fires apply to different parts of the state. In the Hill Country, for instance, the excessive heat during the summer and quick drying can cause fires to erupt.
Winter fires are more common in Texas’ western counties that encompass towns from Amarillo to Odessa, where gusting winds can spread grass fires to tens of thousands of acres in a single day.
Smith said some of the largest grass fires in the state are in the winter and spring in grass-dominant regions of West Texas, where they can move 6 to 7 mph, and cover 50 miles in a day.
“In the Hill Country, our large fires might reach 5,000 acres, which is a big fire for summertime in the Hill Country,” he said. “They are harder to put out … because heat remains for days after the fire is put out. You have to continue to mop up and patrol for days after it’s out.”
Such was the case after a recent fire near Inks Lake in Burnet County burned about 300 acres over several days. The fire began July 29, but crews were still keeping watch over the scorched grounds for more than a week.
Hill Country fires also grow more complicated when the fire jumps from the ground into tree canopies.
“When a fire moves from the surface to canopies of trees, it’s so hot that firefighters can’t get close enough to the fire to build their firebreaks,” Smith said. “They don’t move very fast, but they are very intense.”
The increase in fires has roots in both people and the environment, Smith said.
“The easy answer is climate change; I don’t disagree that we’ve seen warmer and drier weather since the ’80s,” he said. “Whether that’s a normal cycle or a change in our climate, I’m not smart enough to know, but that has been part of the equation, I do think increase in population is part of the equation also — people expanding into the wildland landscape.”
Kari Hines, a wildland urban interface specialist with the forest service, said little rain and high temperatures increase fire risk, and it only gets worse with people nearby.
“The extremes that our climate is undergoing — you hear us saying that we have long periods of drought without a lot of rain, then short bursts of a lot of rain, those extreme temperatures — we’re getting more and more of those every summer. It doesn’t only make fires more common, it also makes them harder to fight,” she said. “Over the last few decades we have seen more fires closer to human development.”
Wherever natural vegetation bumps up against development, whether in parks, greenbelts or wildlands surrounding homes, fires are a concern.
“Our fires are usually a shorter time span than those in the western United States, so primary destruction of human structures is going to happen very quickly. That could mean even before firefighters are able to get on scene,” Hines said.
She said humans are the No. 1 cause of fires, and they can take steps not only to prevent them but also to protect themselves when they do erupt. She urged people to make sure homes and landscaping are built with fire-resistant materials to protect their properties and families.
“A lot of what can and should be done to protect homes and families from wildfire is what people do to their homes before the fire starts,” Hines said.