TX, USA — The importance of Texas taking care of Texans regarding wildfire protection was the message from James Hull, Texas state forester and director of the Texas Forest Service, when he addressed those attending the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce’s Fourth Friday Luncheon.
It’s that same message that Hull is driving home with the Texas Legislature, he said.
Hull described the two-year period from Jan. 1, 2005, to the end of 2006 as one of the most “devastating periods in Texas history” with regard to wildfires that claimed lives and property.
“We saw more wildfires during that period than I saw during the first 30 years, combined, of my career,” he said.
And the threat to Texas wasn’t just from wildfires during that period. Hull said the Texas Forest Service spent time assisting with emergency response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in rescue efforts when tornados struck areas of the state and when flooding ravaged El Paso and the Gulf Coast.
“And we had wildfires from one end of the state to the other,” he said. “Only in Texas could you have all of these events happening at the same time.”
Hull, an SFA graduate, has held the top position with the Texas Forest Service since 1996, when he was named Texas’ seventh state forester and associate vice chancellor for the agriculture program by the Texas A&M board of regents.
Prior to this appointment, Hull held Texas Forest Service district forester appointments in Kirbyville, Woodville and Linden until 1975, when he was named agency assistant director. In 1981, he was named associate director.
Under his leadership, the Texas Forest Service has gained national prominence in wildfire protection and prevention.
It was the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan and the events leading up to its establishment that Hull brought to the attention of chamber members and business leaders attending the monthly luncheon.
During the two-year period he described, 29,000 wildfires across the state destroyed 2.2 million acres. Hull described the week between Christmas 2005 and New Year’s Day 2006 as “the worst disaster week I have ever seen in Texas” as wildfires swept across portions of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Among the hardest-hit areas were the small Texas communities of Cross Plains and Kennedale where hundreds of homes were burned.
“We’d never seen that kind of fire,” he said.
The danger continued into the new year when another devastating fire in mid-March in the Texas Panhandle burned 15 miles wide and 100 miles long.
A lot of property was destroyed, but there was a lot saved, also, Hull said, referring specifically to actions of an air-operations coordinator who redirected an air tanker to the community of Skellytown.
“That plane suppressed the fire and saved the town,” Hull said.
The state forester said he gets concerned about “coming across like a bureaucrat” before audiences when he gives statistics.
“But this affects lives,” he said, adding that’s why he’s “so passionate” about making sure legislators are aware of what was lost.
“We lost 19 Texans 17 civilians and two volunteer firefighters,” he said.
The increase in wildfire danger can be attributed to several factors, including an increasing Texas population, Hull said, adding that “Texans start 99 percent of all wildfires in the state.”
Weather cycles and changes in land use are other causes. He said studies have shown that Texas experiences cycles of 25- to 30-year cycles of alternating dry and wet periods.
“The first 30 years of my career, we were in a wet cycle,” he said. “In 1996, we came out of that wet cycle, and we now have 20 to 25 years left in this dry cycle.
TFS resources are limited, Hull said, with 57 dozers and 162 firefighters statewide. That’s why when wildfires strike, national mobilization brings firefighters from other states to Texas. During last year’s wildfires, 4,000 additional personnel came to Texas, at a cost of $75 million.
“That’s 10 times my annual budget,” Hull said. “That’s a lot of Texas money going to other states.”
In response, the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan advocates building a “solid wildfire protection infrastructure for Texas leading to a greatly reduced number of wildfires,” and building Texas’ “capacity to handle its wildfire protection and suppression responsibilities at a fraction of the cost of a national mobilization.”
If the plan is fully funded, it will cut wildfire losses by 80 percent, reduce the state’s fire expenditures by one-half, and slash national mobilization costs by 80 percent, Hull said.