TEXAS FIRESTORMS AND THE NEED FOR WILDFIRE AWARENESS
The vast majority of wildfires spring up within two miles of Texas towns, cities and suburbs – and that makes wildfire education critical to Texans. It’s more critical than ever now that scientists with the National Weather Service are predicting high potential for massive and destructive fires propelled by high winds to occur this winter and spring.
“We’re headed into a pretty bad fire season,” said Texas Division of Emergency Management State Coordinator Denita Powell.
The State Operations Center has been participating in daily wildfire operations calls with the Texas Forest Service (TFS) since October 2010 in order to maintain situational awareness and coordinate the possible need for resources to assist local fire departments.
The wildfire threat in recent years has become worse than at any time in Texas history due to population growth and changes in land use. Where fires once raged across vast prairie lands, in today’s world they can rapidly strike at suburbs, rage across highways burning up trucks and cars, and propel flaming cinders onto dry roofs as far away as two miles from the fire itself.
When you add human carelessness to the mix, you have a recipe for disaster. The Texas Forest Service notes that 90 percent of all Texas wildfires are associated with human activity – from tossed cigarettes and inappropriate or illegal use of fireworks, to accidents involving hot vehicles parking in high weeds – or use of welding equipment on days of dry weather and high winds.
That means increasing public awareness of the danger is essential, and that’s why TFS has embarked on a major initiative to help educate the public called, “Is Your Community Prepared for a Firestorm?” The agency has produced a video on the impact of firestorms, which can be viewed on YouTube at www.texasfirestorm.org. TFS officials compare firestorms to hurricanes, tornadoes and other forces of nature that simply cannot be stopped. When a wildfire driven by high winds moves toward a populated area, the key to survival is immediate evacuation.
One of the worst fire seasons in Texas history occurred five years ago. The West Texas town of Cross Plains was nearly destroyed by a massive and deadly firestorm that began Dec. 27, 2005. Similar weather conditions three months later forced the evacuation of seven Panhandle communities. The Texas Forest Service states that during the past five years alone, 10 such firestorms have burned across more than 2.5 million acres, killing 22 Texans and destroying 1,065 structures.
The TFS firestorm initiative is based on analysis by the National Weather Service of weather conditions leading to this state’s most devastating fires. NWS experts discovered that the worst fire seasons in Texas history occurred in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Paul Yura, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said forecasters took several major fire events, “and reconstructed the weather to find a ‘composite’ weather map. The common threads included a dip in the Jet Stream over the southern plains, abnormally high temperatures and low humidity.”
The Jet Stream dip resulted in strong, westerly, surface winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour – with 50 to 100 mile per hour winds at the 10,000 and 30,000 foot levels. Temperatures as much as 15 to 20 degrees above normal for the time of year, combined with dry air blowing in from northern Mexico and New Mexico, made it very easy for fires to ignite and spread. NWS refers to this weather pattern as Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak system.