Despite a public call by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to pray for rain over the weekend, major wildfires continue to rage on across the state.
Already an estimated 1.5 million acres of Texas has burned this year, according to the Texas Forest Service. Thunderstorms rolled through the state over the weekend, but lightning strikes accompanied the rain, setting the stage for a challenging wildfire week ahead that will draw upon limited resources.
"Sleepers" -- smoldering embers first ignited by lightning -- are expected to be picked up by high-speed gusts moving through the state and set more fires in the next couple days, said Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service. Winds are expected to whip through at about 50 miles per hour.
Firefighters and support workers on loan from 43 states, the Virgin Islands and a variety of federal agencies worked yesterday to beat back the flames on four major fires that still cover more than half a million acres. Perry said the state has responded to more than 7,000 fires since late December.
As Texas seeks to quash the blazes, it is using almost all of the U.S. air tankers that are currently available to help fight wildfires, according to Webb. That includes three heavy air tankers and four military C-130s. Then, another two air tankers are on standby in New Mexico, and could be called in for an emergency response -- if they are not already attending to another fire, he said.
Weather projections suggest that there will continue to be warm and dry conditions for the next couple of months in Florida, southern Georgia, southeastern South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado -- meaning those areas may compete for those same wildfire fighting resources.
Climate change contributes fuel, dryness
With wildfire season gearing up out West, more tankers are expected to be available. A total of 18 air tankers are scheduled to be cycled in for use by mid-June, and four more military C-130s could also be called upon in an emergency.
Severe drought set the stage for these massive wildfires, but the intense winds and abundant shrubs that grew as a result of last year's more plentiful rains stirred the pot for Texas and its surrounding areas (ClimateWire, April 21).
Texas State climatologist John Nielson-Gammon said that while the Texas fires themselves cannot be attributed to climate change, global warming likely sparked some of the conditions leading to the blazes.
"Global warming probably produced a slight enhancement of the rainfall, leading to a little extra plant growth," he said. "Also, the warm temperatures during the past couple of months are probably a degree or two warmer than they would have been without the rise in global temperatures, thereby increasing the dryness," he added.
Nationally, 2.2 million acres had already burned as of yesterday -- almost double the 10-year national average for this time of year, which is 829,000 acres, according to National Interagency Fire Center figures.
"The longer [this weather] lasts, the greater the chances are of having a dry summer, because there is a feedback between how much moisture can evaporate from the soil and how many thunderstorms we can get," said Nielson-Gammon. These conditions could spell trouble for spring crops and forage for cattle in the summer, he said.