Wildfire threat returns, thanks to dry weather around Texas

Wildfire threat returns, thanks to dry weather around Texas

2 January 2008

published by www.chron.com

Lubbock, Texas, USA — Months of dry, warmer than normal weather have left fields parched across Texas, and a similar forecast through March has fire officials gearing up for the next wildfire season.

Since Dec. 21, the Texas Forest Service has responded to at least 58 fires involving about 8,150 acres. No one was injured, but about half the state’s 254 counties were under burn bans Wednesday.

“Our grasses are high and everything is fuel,” said Elizabeth Sumter, the county judge for Hays County southwest of Austin, where 40 homes were evacuated Tuesday because of a wildfire. “It’s very much a tinder box.”

Sumter signed a seven-day burn ban Monday and plans to sign another next week that will last 90 days.

Conditions won’t soon change, either. The next few months are shaping up to be similar to other heavy wildfire seasons in Texas the past 11 years.

Three times since 1996, La Nina weather patterns brought warmer and drier conditions to the state, most recently in 2005-06. Wildfires spanning several months scorched 2.25 million acres statewide, destroying more than 730 homes and killing 20 people, including two firefighters.

Heavy rainfall over the past year brought a thick growth of trees, bushes and grasses across the state — a plentiful supply of fuel for wildfires.

The region with the greatest growth from the wet year is north central Texas west of the Interstate 35, forest service spokeswoman Pat Schaub said.

Freezes have killed most of the growth, further increasing the fire danger when winds are high and the humidity low, Schaub said.

Areas of concern are moving targets, with red flag warnings changing daily depending on wind and humidity. But improved technology allows experts to assess vegetation’s water content along with other factors in order to figure out where fire danger is greatest.

Resources are then sent to dangerous areas and stay in readiness mode until risk assessments change.

Fire activity was low in Texas until around Dec. 21. Since then fires have burned in Gillespie, Crockett, Bastrop, and Mason counties in west central Texas; Rusk and Smith counties in East Texas; and Brooks County in South Texas.

Firefighters were still trying to extinguish a Mason County fire that burned about 2,800 acres and was 85 percent contained.

In the Mason fire, resources that weren’t available two years ago were used. Two Blackhawk helicopters with the Texas National Guard in Austin, deployed in the Middle East in 2006, were used to make 73 water drops in Mason County earlier this week.

Unlike the southeastern U.S. where drought continues to grip the region, Texas got plenty of rain in 2007. Through November, the statewide average was 35.96 inches, still 9.94 inches, or 38 percent, above normal and the sixth-wettest span on record.

But a recent dry spell has left about 52 percent of the state abnormally dry and 6 percent in moderate drought. Plus, conditions in the southeast could jeopardize out-of-state firefighting resources for Texas.

“If you have multiple states burning, it’s hard to get those resources in,” Schaub said. “There’s only so many of them.”

Two years ago in the Texas Panhandle wildfires raged for days, killing 12 people and hundreds of livestock. Resources in small volunteer departments there were strained and needed outside help.

The forest service, which maintains a fleet of more than 60 bulldozers primarily in the pine forests of East Texas, sent seven to the Panhandle to help battle the fast-moving fires. Dozers came from as far away as South Dakota, and air tankers flew in from Oklahoma and New Mexico.

“We’re part of a national mutual aid system,” said Mark Stanford, chief of fire operations with the forest service. “It is standard practice for us to get assets from other parts of the nation.”

Residents facing conditions that spawn wildfires should practice safety, Schaub said. Keeping shrubs away from homes and grasses cut short helps, she said.

Also, residents should be cautious when welding outside and keep vehicles with catalytic converters on roadways. Those can quickly ignite a grass fire if taken off-road.

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