NewsApril 27, 2011

Texas Wildfires Continue to Rage Amidst Historic Drought Conditions

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By Dave Levitan

State and local emergency responders battle wildfires near Swenson, Texas. Credit: Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System

Justin Myers shuttled back and forth, day after day: he fought the Swenson fire, then the Cooper Mountain fire for days on end, then the previously contained Swenson fire lit up again and he was back at it. And then, of course, he would come home to see if fires had crept any closer to his own ranch in Stonewall County, northwest of Abilene, Texas.

“We fought fire every day for about two weeks,” said Myers, a farmer and rancher as well as a professional firefighter in Abilene. “It’s been pretty intense.” His own land has largely been spared, though he said at one point they did pen and move some cattle as the fire approached. His fiancée’s family, though, lost some land, and his father’s ranch saw more than four miles of fence along the edge of the property burn. And Myers knows just how lucky he and his family have been.

“We set a lot of backburns, and we burned off enough country that we got it held at the fire line, so we were very fortunate,” he said. “It could have been very bad.”

For others, it has been. The wildfires still burning through Texas are some of the worst the state has ever seen. Even after weeks of fighting, on April 27 there were still 17 major fires burning, covering about 573,000 acres, according to the Texas Forest Service. And since January, 840 fires have consumed more than 1.5 million acres. That already far eclipses the 293,000 acres that burned in Texas in all of 2010, and is approaching the 3.4 million acres that burned across the entire U.S. last year.

And while the fires have consumed homes, businesses, and huge numbers of livestock already, Myers and others seem upbeat, and the efforts to push back the burns have their success stories. According to the Texas Forest Service, more than 5,600 structures have been saved due to coordinated efforts among federal, state, and local agencies.

The fires continue to rage, though, with help from a historically severe drought across the region. More frequent and intense droughts are a consistent finding of many climate projections, although attributing a particular drought, such as the current one, to climate change is fraught with complexity. “These are drought conditions that one might expect to see every 20 to 50 years,” said David Brown, regional director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Regional Climate Services, in a conference call with reporters. On April 25, he said that “all of Texas is covered in drought conditions for the first time in the history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, going back nearly a decade.”

Brown added that this drought was “a long time in coming.” Last month was the driest March Texas has had in the 117 years of available records, and a strong La Niña pattern in the Pacific Ocean “often corresponds to dry winter conditions in the southern United States,” Brown said. La Niña, characterized by cooler than average water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, tends to steer the jet stream north of Texas, causing rains to bypass the state, as well as other parts of the southern tier.

And though areas of northeast Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas have started to see relief with heavy rains – albeit accompanied by severe weather – from spring thunderstorms, Brown said “drought is predicted to broadly persist across the region for the next one to three months.”

Fighting back in these conditions is clearly difficult, but some areas have come up with creative solutions. One such effort wasn’t an actual firefighting initiative, but an organizing one. In the Possum Kingdom Lake region, about 80 miles west of Fort Worth, a partner with real estate company Pondera Properties, Jackie Fewell, decided the haphazard release of information on the fires in the region needed fixing. She started a blog and a webpage that simply updates all available fire information, and within days it had gone viral.

“When she started this, she was getting about 25 hits per second, and we’re up to about 200 hits per second,” said Amy Sabbatini, who was helping coordinate the blog and an associated fund they started to help volunteer firefighters. They have collected more than $100,000, all from a tiny conference room at a Holiday Inn Express where many who have lost their homes or businesses are staying alongside volunteer firefighters that came in to fight the fires.

“It could easily be a bunch of people sitting around being sad and saying ‘oh poor me,’ but it’s not like that at all,” Sabbatini said. “Everyone is just here trying to help each other.”

And Possum Kingdom Lake was rewarded on Easter Sunday, when more than two inches of rain fell, helping contain the fires. Other regions farther to the south and west, though, have not been so lucky.

A Climate Change Connection?

It is hard to say exactly why this drought and the associated fires have been so persistent and devastating, but some experts note that long-term climate change may play a role.

“It’s not just because the temperature is higher, it’s a combination of changes that are set in motion by the changing climate,” said David Cleaves, the climate change advisor to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture. He added that rising temperatures and the potential for more frequent extreme weather events — both heavy rainfall as well as extended drought — could conspire to make conditions that much more conducive to fire.

“It starts with a lot of rain and a flush of growth, followed by extreme drought,” Cleaves said. “So you have even more vegetation to burn than you would have normally had because of the rain part, but then it’s drier because of the [drought].” This has played out to some extent in Texas, where the summer of 2010 was unusually wet, and the drought conditions that followed have left plenty of dry vegetation to serve as “fuel” for the fires. (See this related Climate Central graphic on how rains can actually lead to more fires in some areas).

This image, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite, shows wildfire conditions on April 15, 2011. Wind whipped both smoke and dust southeast across the state. Credit: Nasa

The Forest Service’s Quadrennial Fire Review, last published in 2009, suggested that this decade could see 12 million acres per year lost to fire in the U.S., an increase over previous averages. That raises questions about the role of climate change. In fact, climate change has already been found responsible for changes in the extent of areas burned in other regions of North America, like the forests of the Northwest, and is known to pose a threat to water availability in the Southwest. Future projections also show large increases in areas burned by wildfires as temperatures increase in the Western U.S. in coming decades.

One of the worst years on record was 2006, when 9.8 million acres burned around the country. This year’s fires have affected 252 of 254 Texas counties so far, and judging by the forecasted continuing drought, this could lead to the eclipse of the 2006 record. By this point that year, 2.2 million acres had burned in the U.S. as a whole; in 2011, the number is already up to 2.3 million. The Texas state record of 1.98 million acres, also set in 2006, seems likely to fall as well with months of fire season still ahead and more than 1.5 million acres already burned.

Mike Barnett, the publications director for the Texas Farm Bureau, an industry group, said his group’s constituency is “suffering a double whammy.” The drought was already hurting many crops, especially wheat, Barnett said. “If we don't get rain soon, ranchers will start the culling process once again, thinning out herds that haven't been rebuilt [after] the drought two years ago.”

Add the fires to that equation, and people who make a living off land in Texas are having a rough year. “I talked to a farmer the other day about wildfires near San Angelo,” Barnett said. “He told me strong winds switched direction on three consecutive days, spreading a local fire in every direction. It makes wildfire almost impossible to contain. That's the situation across much of Texas this spring.”