USA — Wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres in Texas since the fire season started – more than in any other year since the state Forest Service began keeping records a quarter-century ago.
The scorched earth covers more than twice the total land acreage in Delaware, or almost 2 percent of the land in the Lone Star State’s famously wide-open spaces. The total is 50 percent higher than the 1.98 million acres burned in the deadly fire season of 2006.
And that’s not all: Officials have reported 12,362 fires to the Forest Service this season, which officially began Nov. 15, said agency spokeswoman April Saginor. Texas’ annual budget for fighting wildfires is $15.5 million. As of Sunday, the state had spent $126.7 million, Saginor said.
Worse, the wildfire threat shows no signs of abating.
“I think we’ll have critical days throughout the summer,” Saginor said. “We’re just so critically dry.”
Just 0.68 inch of rain has fallen in Amarillo so far this year, according to the National Weather Service. The next driest year on record was 1953, when Amarillo had 2.88 inches as of June 19.
The lowest annual precipitation on record in Amarillo is 9.56 inches in 1970, according to the weather service. At the current rate – with winter snow still to come – the total precipitation this year would be 1.45 inches.
Those conditions combined with suffocating heat have kindled a fire season like no other, destroying homes here and across the state and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.
Three more fires burned the Panhandle on Sunday. The fast-moving Nance Ranch fire east of Canyon consumed about 590 acres, Forest Service spokesman Jerry Rohnert said. Randall County authorities issued a voluntary evacuation order during the blaze. Rohnert said residents of about 20 homes evacuated before the order was lifted Monday.
“(Firefighters) were careful letting people back because there’s a lot of straw and cow manure there,” he said. “That stuff burns for a long time.”
Paramedics treated two firefighters for heat exhaustion and a third for minor cuts after a window in his vehicle shattered during the fire, authorities said.
Randall County spokesman Danny Alexander said circumstances surrounding the fire were suspicious and it remained under investigation Monday. The fire destroyed an outbuilding, but no other structures were damaged, officials said.
A fire in southern Moore County burned about 10,000 acres, said Dumas fire Chief Paul Jenkins. Firefighters brought the blaze under control about nine hours after it started at 12:40 p.m. Sunday, Jenkins said.
“It was two miles wide in places and nine miles long,” the chief said.
Crews returned Monday morning to extinguish trees that had flared up.
Jenkins compared this season to the one in 2006, when wildfires killed 13 people and thousands of head of livestock.
This year, fires have claimed one life in the Panhandle. Elias Jaquez, 49, a Cactus volunteer firefighter, died from injuries he suffered fighting a blaze April 9.
Potter County Fire-Rescue Assistant Chief Pat Fitzpatrick said county resources were spread thin Sunday afternoon. The department aided in fighting the Moore County fire, but also responded to a 2 -acre fire in the median of Interstate 40 between Wildorado and Bushland, Fitzpatrick said.
Early Sunday evening a report of an explosion scrambled crews to the Pioneer Natural Resources’ Fain gas plant, about 25 miles north of Amarillo, he said.
“Their flare belched out some fluid and caught some grass on fire,” Fitzpatrick said. “There was nothing there to burn. It only burned about 500 square feet.”
Saginor said the Forest Service will remain stationed around the state to respond to fires quickly until vegetation and the ground gather enough moisture to slow wildfires.
That appears unlikely to happen soon, said Krissy Scotten, a weather service meteorologist.
“For the next two weeks it doesn’t look promising for any rain at all,” Scotten said. “If we don’t get anything now and we go into September with less than 2 inches, it’s going to be bad.”