Texas is preparing for more wildfires without a break from heat in forecast

Bastrop County Sheriffs Department evacuated businesses and residences as multiple first responders including Bastrop Fire, Round Rock Fire, Austin Fire Department and Travis County ESD join together to fight a powder Keg Pine Fire in Bastrop on Tuesday Aug. 1, 2023. (Usa Today Network Via Reuters Co, Usa Today Network Via Reuters Co)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

LUBBOCK — State and local officials are increasingly wary of wildfires engulfing Texas as hot temperatures and dry conditions increase the potential for damage.

Texas A&M Forest Service, which monitors wildfire conditions, this week raised the preparedness level to its second-highest rating. A Level 4 rating indicates there is a large amount of wildfires and state and local officials are dedicating more resources to fight the danger. The forest service cited an increase in fire activity across the state and the growing potential for wildfires to become more severe and harder to control.

At least 8,500 acres of Texas land have burned since Aug. 1, according to data from the forest service. And while most of the 11 active fires across the state Wednesday were largely contained, current weather conditions make it so any fire could grow rapidly.

Texas A&M Forest Service Fire Chief Wes Moorehead said in a statement the decision indicates “the complexity of wildfires across Texas is increasing to where they require more time, personnel and equipment to contain and put out.”

According to the service, they responded to 17 new requests for assistance on Tuesday that burned 1,094 acres across the state. As of Wednesday, nearly 70% of the state’s 254 counties had burn bans in place.

The fire conditions have been aggravated by high winds, hot temperatures and a lack of rainfall that has dried out grasses, trees and other natural brush throughout the summer.

“Gradually over time, as we’ve stayed in this pattern for the last month or more, conditions have become more conducive for fires to form and be more severe,” said Chris McKinney, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Texas’ wildfires so far have been milder than in previous years. In 2022, for example, a single fire in Eastland County in west central Texas burned more than 54,000 acres. In total, more than 538,000 acres had burned by this time last year. By comparison, just 55,000 acres have burned this year.

More recently, state officials are also taking notice of the wildfire dangers. Gov. Greg Abbott in July directed the Texas Division on Emergency Management to deploy more state firefighting resources to Llano County to contain the Moore Peak Fire that burned 707 acres.

McKinney said the conditions are in line with weather patterns that have impacted the southern and southwestern U.S. where potential rain is being pushed away by high temperatures. The risk is likely to continue, as August is typically the hottest month in Texas.

“The next week to 10 days look to be fairly similar to what we’ve seen over the last few weeks,” McKinney said. “As we get into September, we’ll see things start to improve. But in the short term, there’s not much relief.”

According to the service, about 90% of wildfires in Texas are caused by human activity. McKinney said awareness on how fires can be started from every-day things, such as dragging a chain from a vehicle, tossing out a lit cigarette or barbecuing, is important.

“Anything that could cause a spark, there’s always going to be the potential of starting a wildfire with that,” McKinney said. “Then any day where it’s windy, on top of hot and dry, is that much more critical.”

The forest service warned that the potential for wildfires that are resistant to control will continue through Friday. The service also said extreme fire danger is forecast for broad regions of the state, including areas along the I-35 corridor between Dallas, Waco, Austin and San Antonio, as well as Abilene and Wichita Falls. There is an increased risk for other areas including Jacksonville, Center, Lufkin, Crockett, Huntsville, Woodville, Cleveland, Kirbyville and Jasper.

“Critical fire weather is forecast for regions of the state where vegetation has been primed by persistent hot and dry weather over the past six weeks,” the service said in an update Wednesday.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.