According to a 2021 report from the state climatologist’s office at Texas A&M University, the Lone Star State’s wildfire risk is expected to rise.
Some experts and first responders say Texas is already seeing more frequent and more destructive wildfires — a trend influenced by population growth as much as climate.
The Eastland Complex fires in March, 2022 are considered the worst in the state since 2011. The Texas Observer reports that the fires “destroyed 86 homes in Carbon, 75% of the town and dozens of buildings across neighboring communities.”
The same day the Eastland fires broke out, the Texas A&M Forest Service responded to 38 other fires. By the end of that same week, local, state, and federal firefighters had responded to 178 wildfires across the state.
Favorable Conditions for Wildfires
Longer stretches of drought in Texas prime conditions more and more favorable for wildfires. In already-dry west Texas, rainfall limits the amount of grass and brush that grow each year. The lack of vegetation means wildfire risk has risen more slowly on the prairie, but, as the rest of the state dries out, more wildfires may continue to break out in the forests of East Texas, according to the office Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.
“Most of the state is going to have wildfire fuel to burn,” Nielsen-Gammon said, “The hotter, drier conditions will lead to greater fire risk.”
The occurrence of wildfires isn’t all bad. Learning from indigenous peoples, fire risk management agencies use prescribed burns under carefully controlled weather conditions help reduce the risk of larger, catastrophic wildfires by clearing away excess brush. Prescribed burns also protect longleaf pine trees, which depend on fire to grow.
Making wildfires so destructive is the growing population and growing number of homes in the “wildland-urban interface”, or a zone at the edges of population centers and surrounded by vegetation.
More than 90% of all land in Texas is privately owned, so individual landowners bear an outsized share of responsibility for wildfire prevention. The state’s preventative efforts are limited. Experts are educating private citizens and emphasizing the importance of protecting homes and communities by maintaining their land and hardening their homes.
Nine out of 10 times, local fire departments contain wildfires in their areas without any outside assistance. The Texas Forest Services is available when locals efforts cannot contain a fire. The agency utilizes predictive services to pinpoint high-risk areas, issue warnings, and position resources like state firefighters and equipment in those areas.