A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

Fast Start to Fire Season as Wildfires Scorch Texas

When one thinks of wildfire-prone states, Texas may not immediately come to mind. Rather, monstrous blazes in southern California, or the mountains of Wyoming, seem more fitting. But so far this year, Texas has been ground zero for fast-moving wildfires — more than 5,300 of them, to be exact. 

Aided by moderate to strong La Niña conditions this winter, the worst drought in 45 years has turned large parts of Texas into a tinderbox, with more than one million acres burned so far, and few signs of drought-relieving rains ahead. 

State and local emergency responders battle wildfires near Swenson, Texas on April 8. Credit: Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System/Texas Governor Rick Perry/flickr.

Entire towns have been engulfed in flames, such as Fort Davis, which the Austin American-Statesman described as looking "as if it's surrounded by a giant, black lava flow" with "once-golden rangeland so black that Angus cattle are camouflaged." The current wildfire season in Texas, as well as neighboring Oklahoma, is on pace to rival or eclipse the record-setting winter/spring 2006 wildfire season, during which 11 people were killed and 400 homes were destroyed. 

In the Midland area, the 193-day stretch from October 1 to April 11 was not just the driest such period on record, but it was eight times drier than the previous record, according to Victor Murphy, climate service program manager at the National Weather Service’s Southern Region Headquarters in Fort Worth. 

The hardest hit areas also include Del Rio, College Station, and Wichita Falls, all of which have had their driest Oct. 1 to April 11 period on record. 

La Niña conditions, which are characterized by cooler than average conditions in the eastern equatorial tropical Pacific Ocean, are associated with drier than average conditions in the southern tier of the U.S., including Texas. While this does not hold true during every La Niña year, it has played out this year, as storms bypassed the southern tier of the country.

“The moderate to strong La Niña event of 2010/2011 is certainly one of the primary factors in the dryness across Texas. Normal day to day weather swings and serendipity play a lesser role, but current studies tell us that on average Texas is more apt to receive below normal precipitation during La Niña winters,” Murphy says. 

The drought followed a very wet summer and early fall, rounding out a boom and bust cycle of precipitation in the Lone Star State, which has provided plenty of dry vegetation to fuel wildfires. From October 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011, Texas received just 5.07 inches of rainfall as a statewide average. This is 45 percent of the 100-year statewide average of 11.35 inches. March was Texas’ driest such month since records began in 1895. 

Now, any weather systems that kick up dry, gusty winds can result in a major fire.

US Drought Monitor, showing much of Texas in the grips of severe drought conditions. Credit: NOAA.

Are Wetter Times Ahead?

The January through March period is typically the driest time of year in Texas, with average statewide rainfall increasing by nearly 40 percent from March to April, and even more by May, which is Texas’ wettest month. If rainfall increases like it usually does, Murphy says, “Then these drought conditions will be mitigated substantially before the peak water usage... hits this summer. If not, then we will see a prolonged (and abnormally active) fire weather season, significant impacts on non-irrigated crops, and a tightening of water supplies.”

The national drought outlook projects drought conditions to persist across Texas, and indeed much of the Southwest. The fire weather outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center is not quite as pessimistic, showing a decrease in fire potential for eastern parts of Texas during May, as moist air from the Gulf of Mexico begins to work its way into the area. However, fire danger may be increasing at that point in West Texas and New Mexico.

Murphy notes that the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex has not been nearly as dry as other parts of the state, which is good news for water resources there. “However, this is one oasis of short-term wetness in a sea of longer-term drought.” 

Additional Resources:

Visualization of recent Texas wildfires from the Texas Tribune.

US threats assessment.

US Drought Monitor.

National Interagency Fire Center.

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