USA — Texas is in the midst of what may be its worst fire season in history. According to the Texas Forest Service, more than 9,000 fires have charred over 2 million acres statewide this season. In their wake, the fires have left hundreds of homes and business destroyed, and the battle to control their spread led to the tragic loss of two firefighters.
And yet it might have been worse. While it’s impossible to anticipate the full scope of a record-breaking fire season, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists were able to warn state fire managers as early as last December of the forthcoming extreme drought conditions that would lead to high fire risk. These long-range forecasts helped in the prepositioning of fire-fighting assets and prioritization of resources, so that first responders could act quickly when the fire season did arrive, saving lives and property.
Seasonal climate forecasts, including seasonal temperatures, precipitation and drought outlooks from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center as well as information from the agency’s weather satellites are examples of the nation’s decades-long investment in weather and climate services, an investment that allows decision-makers to plan for and respond to evolving threats quickly and efficiently. NOAA weather forecasts focus on short-term conditions – from minutes to days – while climate forecasts are targeted at months, seasons and beyond. By working closely with local and state officials in Texas and across the country, NOAA can deliver these forecasts as part of a range of climate and weather services – including products such as seasonal drought outlooks and real-time fire weather forecasts – that meet the short- and long-term needs of the fire management community.
Months before the fires began, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center released a series of seasonal climate forecasts warning that Texas was in store for unusually dry winter weather – a situation that can greatly enhance fire risk. Meteorologists from the NOAA National Weather Service in Texas then helped decision-makers with early planning by hosting a statewide fire weather and climate meeting in December.
The winter seasonal forecasts proved to be spot on. Drought conditions emerged in many areas of the South as early as November and by February dry conditions stretched from Arizona to Florida with Texas the hardest hit. Today, much of the state is characterized by “exceptional drought,” the most severe drought classification. The NOAA-affiliated state climatologist in Texas called it the worst drought the state has endured in nearly half a century.
Texans can follow how this drought continues to evolve via the U.S. Drought Monitor (www.drought.gov), a tool that tracks both its scope and intensity. This product is a partnership between NOAA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center. Weekly updates show where the drought is worsening or improving and the tool supports the ability of local and state managers to respond accordingly to changing conditions.
Specially trained National Weather Service meteorologists remain in the field, providing real-time, on-the-ground forecasts to help first responders battle the fires. And the 13 National Weather Service forecast offices serving Texas brief local first responders routinely, issue drought information statements and high wind warnings and update short-term and long-term weather forecasts.
As this historic fire season progresses, the climate and weather experts in NOAA will continue to provide critical and timely information and services that help first responders protect homes and businesses and save lives. At the same time, NOAA continues to work on building the next generation of tools and products that our fire management partners need – for instance, long range forecasts that can pinpoint the local onset of drought even further in advance. The outcome of these efforts will also help farmers, ranchers and water managers and require the coordination of many NOAA offices and close partnerships at federal, state and local levels.
Ultimately, Texans will benefit from an even better prepared fire management community working to protect people and property.