TEXAS WILDFIRE SEASON
As of June 1st, much of the attention on Texas weather shifted toward a potentially busy hurricane season. But the lingering drought and memories of 2011 have many Texans concerned about the upcoming wildfire season.
The combination of hot, dry and windy conditions that existed in 2011 and led to the worst fire season in Texas history are considerably different for most of Texas so far this year than two years ago.
The La Niña event that developed in late 2010 helped set up the driest year ever for Texas. As a result, average rainfall totals for the state were less than 15 inches in 2011. The entire state had been suffering in a lengthy historic drought, and by August 2011, over 73% of Texas was under exceptional drought conditions; 92% was under extreme drought status.
Today, that 2010-2012 La Niña is gone, and, while over 95% of Texas is at some level of drought condition, only 33% is considered extreme or exceptional.
Regarding fire danger, much of Texas has benefitted from timely rainfall events so far this year. San Antonio and Houston have had serious flash flooding, and north and east Texas have received heavy rain from several severe thunderstorms during the spring. A February blizzard in the Panhandle dropped over 19 inches of snow around the Amarillo area. Most of the Upper Gulf Coast and Southeast Texas regions are no longer under drought status.
Vast areas destroyed by the 2011 wildfires, like the Lost Pines Forest in Bastrop County, are still devastated, and much of the timber and brush that tend to dominate summer fires hasn’t grown back. Plus, across the state Energy Release Component (ERC) values are at normal and above-normal moisture levels.
And it will take time to drive this moisture level down. Even as Texas summer temperatures begin to rise and rain chances drop, forecasters anticipate a gradual wildfire fuel drying pattern. “Surface moisture will dry first. If the dry pattern continues past four weeks, large dead fuels and canopy fuels become available,” said Brad Smith, a wildland fire analyst with the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS).
Already, parts of west Texas and the Panhandle face a considerable threat of wildfire. Freezing winter temperatures coupled with a return to extreme and exceptional drought conditions have given the grasslands here little chance to green up. Because of this, 88 counties in Texas, mostly in west and south Texas and the Panhandle, have burn bans in place.
But, as Texas heats up and the threat of wildfire spreads, personnel and equipment are prepared. Response teams and resources stand ready for mobilization anywhere they are needed.
“We are in a posture looking at both a wildfire and hurricane season,” Paul Hannemann, Chief of Fire Operations for TFS said. “Regarding lessons learned from 2011, we continue to watch the sciences where the risks are in the state.”