Winter wildfire risk is rising in Central Texas. Here’s what you should know
31 January 2023
Published by: https://www.statesman.com
USA – The winter wildfire season is on the horizon for Central Texas, prompting firefighters to prepare residents for what could be another high-risk year for widespread blazes.
Texas is ranked third among all the states for having the highest number of single-family homes at risk of wildfire damage, according to the latest analysis by CoreLogic, an online property data service. The top two states are California and Florida.
When does the winter wildfire season start?
As the effects of climate become more apparent in Central Texas, the risk of wildfires has stretched into every month of the year, according to Justice Jones, a wildfire mitigation officer for the Austin Fire Department.
However, there are still two times when wildfire risk is more severe: the winter wildfire season (February through April) and the summer wildfire season (August through October).
“What drives our winter fire season are cold fronts that come through with dry air and very little moisture,” Jones said. “Grass fires are the predominant worry during winter fire season.”
What areas are most at risk of winter wildfires?
Randy Denzer of the Austin Firefighters Association chimed, saying the east and north sides of Travis County are most at risk for wildfire during the winter.
But if wildfires do spark up on the west side of Travis County from February through April, they tend to be more hazardous because of the density of foliage against homes.
“We’re rolling into another possible bad year for wildfire,” Denzer said, adding that the latest wildfire weather outlook indicates that the next three months will be hotter and drier than normal. “It seems to be our climate change trend right now: drier and hotter than normal.”
Grasses “are completely dead right now for the most part,” he said. “It looks like we’re trending toward a continued drought.”
How can we prepare for the upcoming wildfire season?
There are several practical steps Austin-area residents can take to prevent wildfires from enveloping their homes, with the most immediate being a thorough cleaning of their roofs and storm gutters.
“Roofs are surfaces that are inherently susceptible to embers landing on them,” Jones said. “Gutters are probably one of the most common factors to homes igniting.”
Residents should also make sure there are no leaves in their yards or combustible materials resting against their homes, according to firefighters.
“If you’re lucky enough to have a big enough yard, then make sure there is no path that fire can follow directly to your home,” he said. “Breaking up the continuity and the vegetation in your landscape can act as a mini fire break to keep fire from spreading across your property.”
Has Central Texas had catastrophic wildfires in the past?
Central Texas has experienced catastrophic wildfires, with the most recent being in the 2011 season, when 30,896 total fires were ignited and more than 9.9 million acres were burned, according to Texas A&M Forest Service data.
The Bastrop County Complex Fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history, happened that year. It burned 34,000 acres, destroyed 1,660 homes and killed two people.
Firefighters in years past have said all it will take for Central Texas to experience another wildfire like the Bastrop County Complex Fire would be a month of dry conditions and high winds, followed by someone sparking a flame.
Pulling a car over on the side of the road in tall grass, mowing the lawn on a hot and windy day, or improperly disposing of barbecue coals can all lead to a wildfire, firefighters say.
“If we don’t have any rain for the next 30 days, we could be in extreme fire danger again by March,” Denzer said. “The conditions that lead to a catastrophic fire in West Austin are there all the time. The fuel loading and the houses among them in the hills are there — all the time.”