More than 1 million acres of Texas plains and forests has gone up in smoke this month as hundreds of fires blazed through the Lone Star State.
Gusting winds, statewide drought and low humidity have created tinderbox conditions that state and federal firefighters are still struggling to contain. Lacking a forecast of steady downpours to cool the scorching earth, the Texas Forest Service is expecting the fire conditions to continue wreaking havoc throughout the state.
"Until we get significant moisture -- which would probably be two or three days of a half-inch of a rain a day -- we will continue to have fires like this," said Darrell Schulte, the current fire behavior specialist for the Texas Forest Service.
"It's unlikely they will see much relief before June," he said.
Fueling the fires are winds registering as high as 60 miles per hour that whip embers across acres of vegetation starved for rain. Typically, rain showers cool Texas' scorching earth this time of year, but those rains failed to materialize in 2011 -- making this season the driest since the Texas Forest Service started keeping records in 1915.
Last summer brought higher-than-average rainfalls, ironically exacerbating fire conditions by encouraging lush grass and shrubs to grow, said Schulte. That same vegetation, now parched, is making ideal kindling to feed wildfires as they spread across the state.
Outrunning computer fire models
"Drought is cyclical, and there is a strong relationship between La Niña patterns and below-normal rainfall in the Southwest," said Dave Samuhel, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com. Still, the current drought -- which has led to some sections of Texas netting the most severe drought label from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while the rest of the state also ranks high on the scale -- may serve as a more extreme case, he said.
"A lot of this fire behavior is outside the modeling capabilities. The models give us an idea, but it doesn't match what happens in reality in extreme conditions," said Schulte.
Even with more accurate fire modeling technology honed in the last decade, firefighters are only able to do so much to contain these unpredictable wind-driven fires.
Since the wildfire season began Nov. 15, Texas has lost more than 373 homes, 244 of them just in the last month, according to estimates from Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office.
Texas is still continuing to battle some of the worst fires that first erupted April 6 as well as new ones that spring up each day, pouring thousands of gallons of fire retardant on the fires and deploying firefighters from Texas and more than 30 other states.
Changing climate may contribute
Over the weekend, Perry (R) wrote to the White House to request that the wildfire situation in Texas be declared a major disaster.
Since January, the estimated cost of fighting Texas wildfires has tallied in at more than $20 million, according to the Texas Forest Service. Securing a disaster designation would shift some of those costs and mitigation responsibilities to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Dan Byrd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, called this drought situation "unprecedented" -- pointing to how widespread the fires have become across the state and to the extent of the drought since October. "We haven't seen anything like this for the state since the early 1900s," he said.
While the region is expecting some thunderstorms through Sunday, that rainfall will not be enough to cool the dry tinder and thick burning wood, said Byrd.
"The fires aren't due to climate change, but the changing climate, I think, has been a contributing factor. I can't imagine that climate change hasn't had a deleterious impact," said Dave Cleaves, the climate change adviser for the U.S. Forest Service.
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