USA — The record drought that is worsening with the onset of August-like temperatures is ratcheting up the wildfire danger in what has already been an unprecedented fire season in Texas.
Large fires were burning across the state Tuesday, including a 2,500-acre blaze in Palo Pinto County about 60 miles west of Fort Worth.
Fire crews across the state are confronting record high fire danger ratings and all-time lows for fuel-moisture content, said Tom Spencer, head of the Texas Forest Service’s predictive services department. (Low fuel-moisture content means that vegetation is dry.)
It’s adding up to a potential nightmare scenario, fire experts say.
“It’s scary for us what the late-summer conditions could look like,” Spencer said. “Our winter-spring fire season has basically merged with our late-summer season.
“2011 as it stands is a record year, and it stands to be even more so. There’s no relief in sight — it’s only going to get worse.”
A wildfire in Arizona and New Mexico has torched more than 469,000 acres, or 732 square miles. But those numbers are dwarfed by the toll in Texas, where nearly 12,000 wildfires have consumed more than 2.9 million acres, or about 4,538 square miles, since Nov. 15.
Gov. Rick Perry renewed his proclamation of a statewide disaster Saturday and requested again that the federal government issue a disaster designation.
“I urge the federal government to quickly grant Texas the assistance we have requested — and that Texans deserve — to fight these fires,” Perry said in a news release.
But the federal government hasn’t left the Texas fires unattended.
Since Sept. 1, just suppressing the wildfires has cost an estimated $126.7 million, according to April Saginor of the Texas Forest Service. Of that, federal costs exceed $99 million, including nearly $21 million for air and ground resources, $27 million for personnel and nearly $13 million for meals and lodging.
In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse the state nearly $25 million, according to an estimate by the forest service.
So far, 460 homes have burned, along with automobiles, livestock, barns, crops and countless miles of fencing.
The Southwestern Insurance Information Service estimates roughly $200 million in property losses, Saginor said.
But the Insurance Council of Texas estimates that the 125,000-acre PK Complex Fire in April, which burned 167 homes near Possum Kingdom Lake, by itself caused $150 million in damage, spokesman Mark Hanna said.
The latest blaze rekindled fears, Palo Pinto County Judge David Nicklas said.
“We are absolutely concerned about having another PK Complex,” he said. “With the fireworks season for July Fourth coming up, we are extremely worried.”
Burning all over
The forest service was fighting 13 large fires Tuesday that have charred 59,000 acres.
The biggest is the uncontained 30,000-acre Bird Ranch 2 Fire in rugged terrain west of Paducah, between Wichita Falls and Lubbock, according to fire information officer Richard Reuse of the Texas State Lone Star Incident Management Team, based in Merkel, near Abilene.
The Dos Amigos Fire, covering 19,327 acres about 35 miles north of San Angelo, has destroyed 17 travel trailers and one motor home over its 3-by-7.5-mile path.
Locally, Johnson and Parker counties ordered outdoor burn bans Monday. Tarrant County will likely issue a ban next week, Fire Marshal Randy Renois said.
The wildfire danger is very high to extreme over most of Texas.
“We are in it hot and heavy from East Texas to the Panhandle,” said Reuse, who works for the Virginia Department of Forestry and is one of 675 federal and 300 state workers now fighting Texas fires.
For the 2011 season, the forest service has mobilized 6,214 firefighters who have used 290 fire engines, 172 bulldozers and 141 aircraft, he said.
And that doesn’t include local and volunteer firefighters who have been called out in droves.
With fires also burning in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, national resources are strained, Reuse said.
And with the start of the late-summer fire season in the West, competition for resources will increase, Spencer said.
Fire behavior analyst Kim Soper, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who lives in southern Utah and is on his second deployment to Merkel, said conditions are off the charts.
“The fuel is so dried-out that if you get a spark, there’s a 100 percent chance of it taking off,” he said. Fire “can move 2 to 3 mph. It can go the length of a football field in two minutes. Firefighters have to be really vigilant or they can get caught.
“I’ve seen some other droughts in my 35 years, and this is one of the worst I’ve experienced. These fires are just blowing up,” said Soper, whose next stop on the fire line will be in Arizona.