Drought in Texas September 2011

A special e-newsletter about dealing with the Texas drought

Texas forests face record-breaking danger

By Kathy Wythe

BASTROP FIRE_2011 On a recent Facebook wall, someone posted “Texas is on fire.” While not exactly true, this year has been the worst fire season in Texas’ recorded history, according to Tom Boggus, Texas Forest Service director.

Started during the Labor Day weekend, the massive Bastrop County Complex fire combined with the Union Chapel fire had burned more than 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,554 homes. Two people were found dead. In the first fourteen days of September, the forest service responded to more than 325 fires.

The main culprit causing these fires: the record-breaking severe drought of 2011. As of Sept. 7, 81 percent of the state was in an “exceptional” drought—the worst category of drought.

Boggus said the state has seen 3.6 million acres burn since December 2010. “This is phenomenal,” he said. “This is more than has burned in any season since we have been keeping records.

“At one time in April we had a million acres on fire in the same week,” he said. “That shows you how radical and how unusual this fire season is. We are having 35 to 50 fires a day, 150 to 200 fires a week. It just keeps going on. And it’s all drought-driven.”

Texas Forest Service’s Predictive Services Department HeadTom Spencer, whose staff is responsible for monitoring conditions across the state as it relates to wildland fire potential, said: “Almost always when we find ourselves in high risk or high potential for wildland fire, drought is a contributing factor. Consequently we monitor drought across the state.”

Bastrop_WF2011_044 This fire season has seen an increase in massive and destructive wildfires called firestorms, which, much like hurricanes or tornadoes, can be forecast but not be stopped. Spencer said a set of weather components producing high wind speeds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures, along with extremely dry fuels, are the perfect ingredients for firestorms. These firestorms normally occur in the spring, from eastern New Mexico east to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and from Kansas south to the Texas Hill country. Spencer said the Interstate 20 corridor from west of Abilene to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and 100 miles north or south of it seems to be a particular hotspot. Texas has had eight firestorms this year; the previous high was six in 2006.

To help assess wildfire risk at the state, regional, and local levels, the Predictive Services Department provides short- and long-term forecasts and analyses of fire danger, fire risks, fuel dryness, fire outlook, and other information.

Using that information, Spencer said: “Day to day, we have a pretty good idea where the biggest potential is going to be.” The service deploys its forces based on the potential and risk, he said.

Drought—and the conditions that come along with it—is not only responsible for the tremendous uptick in fires, but it is also causing many of the state’s trees to die.

“I have driven across the state in the last couple of weeks,” Boggus said. “It is alarming to see the number (of trees dying). At first it was a tree here, a tree there.” But now not only are the young seedlings dying but mature trees are beginning to die—in East Texas pine trees and oak trees are stressed and potentially dying, and in the Hill Country juniper and oak trees are severally impacted, he said.

“I have had ranchers tell me: ‘I didn’t know you could kill a cedar,’” Boggus said. “You are seeing gray hillsides and red hillsides and it’s not fall. It’s from stress to trees.”

The stress to the trees is cumulative from the dry cycle the state has experience for the past 10 years.

“It keeps adding up and adding up until finally you get a severe episode like we are in right now and the trees start dying off,” he said. “We are starting to talk about landscape change. We may have large expanses of trees in an area that are going to be dead next spring. So it is really going to change the way things look in and around Texas.”

That change, Boggus said, is “going to affect every aspect of what trees do.”

Because of trees dying, private landowners will have a big expense planting new young trees and Boggus is concerned about the availability of seedlings for these landowners.

Boggus said urban forest resources are being impacted as well. With the drought, many cities are implementing water restrictions and trees are not getting their needed water.

“People are having to prioritize all over Texas on where they use this valuable resource, a resource that matters for years to come: our water.”

If La Niña, a naturally occurring climate phenomenon located over the tropical Pacific Ocean, returns this winter as it is predicted, lower than normal moisture and higher than normal temperatures will continue and the drought will linger, the forest service officials said. Wildfires will burn and trees will die.

“The only way to break out of this (drought) is to have a complete pattern change where we get back to having rainfall on a regular cycle,” Spencer said.

While the wildfires can be attributed to the drought, Boggus said that people need to be vigilant about preventing fires.

“The danger is when people drop their guard and are not as careful,” he said. With hunting season and cooler weather, people will be outdoors more, and they need to be careful. “It’s not so much how we fight them, but if we can prevent them we don’t have to fight them.”

Fast Facts:

  • Personnel from all but three states have fought the Texas wildfires.
  • Year-to-date, Texas has seen 19,659 fires with 3,691,644 acres burned and 4,717 homes and other structures lost, and 49,369 structures saved as of Sept. 14.
  • Aviation resources have delivered 25, 199,364 gallons of water and 4,328,881 gallons of retardant as of Sept. 10.
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