Despite recent winter storms, Texas still facing increased wildfire potential

By Jennifer Whitlock

Texas is experiencing a La Niña weather pattern, and it’s been fairly dry across the state this winter. That combination leads to increased wildfire potential, according to Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS).

Mid-February through mid-April is the peak of the Texas winter/spring fire season, TFS Predictive Services Department Head Brad Smith said.

Unfortunately, the warmer temperatures, drier conditions and strong winds typical of a La Niña are in place at the same time this year, too.

And Texas isn’t off the hook because of Winter Storm Uri, either. The historic winter storms may have brought plenty of ice and snow, but the La Niña is still in effect.

“The precipitation was beneficial and delayed the start of the fire season, but it was not enough to prevent it,” Smith said. “Despite the February precipitation, the drought monitor still shows 75 percent of the state at some level of drought or abnormally dry.”

This time of year is particularly vulnerable to wildfire activity because vegetation is dead or dormant, and winter winds dry them out even more, creating the perfect fodder for wildfires to begin. Once a wildfire is burning, those same winds can whip a small blaze into a frenzy and spread it.

A La Niña weather event can concentrate those conditions. Smith noted historically, in years when Texas has experienced a La Niña, fires are worse.

Since 2005, more than 5.7 million acres have burned during winter and spring season in La Niña years, compared to 280,511 acres in non-La Niña years, according to TFS.

And nowhere feels the effects worse than the Southern Plains.

During Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreaks (SPWOs), dry vegetation and strong west-southwest winds across areas with low relative humidity, above-average surface temperatures, an unstable atmosphere and clear skies combine to fuel massive fires that are difficult to control.

TFS records show SPWOs account for just 3 percent of reported winter/spring wildfires but make up 49 percent of acres burned during all reported fires for the same time period.

“These SPWOs over the past 15 years have been the biggest threat to property and public safety,” Smith said. “Because of our experience over the past years with La Niña winter fire seasons, we expect large fires. I think there’s a good chance we will see one, if not more, SPWOs this season.”

In 2017, wildfires blazed across the Texas Panhandle, scorching nearly half a million acres and causing over $21 million in agricultural losses.

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