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HOUSTON — The first thing Wil Kitchings saw when he reached Huntsville was a plume of smoke drifting across Interstate 45.
The 46-year-old field operations chief was part of a team of first responders from the Florida Forest Service, called upon to help manage a rapidly spreading forest fire in Walker County, about 75 miles north of Houston.
Kitchings, who has 25 years of disaster management experience in Florida, knew immediately that this wildfire was major.
“Your brain starts to gather that, OK, the fire activity is obviously extreme,” Kitchings said.
For several days in late August, Kitchings along with a team of more than 100 local and state emergency responders worked to contain the Game Preserve Fire, which covered an estimated 4,428 acres in Walker County and forced dozens of people to evacuate their homes. Responders put lines of containment around the affected region, brought in brush trucks to spray water on hot areas and deployed overhead firefighters and strike teams. The fire was 95% contained as of Tuesday.
Kitchings and the response team’s considerable effort comes as Texas faces a period of increased fire activity — largely propelled by record high temperatures and drought. Making matters worse, there is a growing shortage of volunteer firefighters, who are often the first responders in rural areas of the state.
Local fire chiefs worry that if the trend continues, fires could get out of hand more quickly and further strain local departments. About 70 percent of Texas’ firefighters are volunteers, according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration. And despite the high volume of wildfires in East Texas, the region has only about 3,100 firefighters, which is fewer than the number in Houston alone, according to the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.
The Texas A&M Forest Service, a state agency that responds to fires and monitors wildfire conditions, last month upped its wildfire preparedness level to a 4 — the second highest rating. There’s a high volume of wildfires that are resistant to control. Soon after, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a wildfire disaster declaration for about 75% of Texas counties. He renewed the declaration Sept. 1.
The intensity is unlikely to let up any time soon. The National Interagency Fire Network, which mobilizes resources to fight wildfires nationally, predicts that much of Oklahoma, Texas and the Mississippi Valley will continue to have above normal fire potential throughout September due to extreme heat and below normal precipitation.
“Drought development and the number of consecutive 100-plus degree days has contributed to critically dry vegetation across much of the state, which is supportive of wildfire activity,” said Erin O’Connor, program specialist for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “With current conditions, we have wildfires that are more complex and show extreme fire behavior, hold heat longer and require more time and effort to suppress.”
Since 2005, the Texas A&M Forest Service has responded to an average of 103 wildfires in July and 151 in August. This year, those numbers skyrocketed to 163 wildfires in July and 501 in August. That acreage is concentrated in East Texas, the state’s principal forest region.
Texas has two wildfire seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer. The winter season features wind-driven fires focused on grass-dominant landscape. The summer fire season is more intense, with active fire behavior in brush and timber vegetation. The forest service has responded to fewer wildfires this year than last year, but more of this year’s fires have been in the more intense summer months.
Local fire departments, especially in rural areas that often rely on volunteers, of which there’s a shortage, are strained.
“It’s become very difficult to recruit people,” said Mickey Hamilton, chief of the Overton volunteer fire department. Overton is a town of about 2,200 people that lies in both Smith and Rusk counties. “And I’ll get people who say they’ll come but they never show up.”
Hamilton attributes part of the challenge to the increase in certification requirements to volunteer. In 2010, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection adopted a new initiative requiring certified fire protection personnel to complete additional training. Those certification courses are not always offered in rural areas, so volunteers have to travel to larger cities.
Hamilton said he is sending at least two people to Smith County this year to complete their training.
In Walker County, the Huntsville Fire Department relies on both full time personnel and volunteers. Fire chief Greg Mathis said that during times of intense wildfires, it’s useful to have external response teams come in to help manage the disaster. He appreciates the Florida response team who helped put out the Game Preserve Fire.
Kitchings, who is continuing to help manage the fire, said he is not sure where he and his team will be deployed next. So far, Texas A&M Forest Service has mobilized more than 1,400 firefighters from 38 states and territories to assist with wildfire response this year.
As of Tuesday, 28 wildfires remain active in Texas, and all but one of them are in East Texas. Mathis encouraged people to stay prepared and watchful and to adhere to the burn bans.
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