LUBBOCK (AP) — Wildfires scorched about 6,200 square miles of Texas two years ago, draining the state’s firefighting coffers and leaving emergency crews exhausted from months of battling massive blazes.
Since then, the fire front has been mostly calm — and authorities don’t expect that to change drastically this year. No wildfire season was declared in 2012 due to ample rain, and much of the grasses and shrubs that fueled the historic blazes in 2011 have yet to grow back, prompting a favorable forecast for the rest of 2013.
Weary fire departments have used the break to rest, train and fix equipment. But it hasn’t put the state’s firefighting agency at ease — not with drought still in the mix.
“Nobody’s lost sight of what happened in 2011,” said Tom Spencer, head of the Texas A&M Forest Service’s predictive services division. “We’re still concerned about the coming summer season.”
Despite months of below normal rainfall, Texas got through its spring wildfire season without any significant outbreaks. The severity of the summer wildfire season — which usually has a stronger presence in the state’s eastern half — will largely depend on rainfall over the next two months. So far, there is no “strong tilt” for dryness, said National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy.
Since January rains have fallen intermittently — most of that in the eastern half of Texas. Last weekend Houston was deluged by as much as 8 inches in a 12-hour period, while other areas in the region saw as much as 10 inches of rainfall in the past week.
Snowfalls, including a historic blizzard in late February that dumped more than 19 inches in the Texas Panhandle, helped relieve the region’s drought conditions that have persisted for two years. But the improvements will be short term unless the region gets rain in coming weeks, meteorologists and climate experts said.
The timeliness of the rainfall kept the fire potential down during the spring, but parts of West Texas still face some threat of wildfires since freezes in that part of the state in April kept grasses from greening up.
The summer wildfire season typically gears up in July and runs through mid-September, though agency officials said the threat won’t be anywhere near as extreme as 2011, Texas’ driest year ever. Ten people died, 4 million acres were scorched and 4,000 homes and other structures burned that year, Texas’ costliest and worst wildfire season ever.
So far this year, only about 157,000 acres have burned through Friday, according to the state fire agency’s website.
Still, drought continues to grip most of Texas, creating problems for farmers and ranchers.
As prime cotton planting begins in West Texas this month, acreage on the South Plains — the world’s largest contiguous cotton-growing patch — could fall because of lack of subsoil moisture. Agriculture producers in South Texas are already suffering those effects.
When Jimmy Dodson planted cotton early last month on his Nueces County farm, he said the soil was the driest he’d ever seen. And the crop has yet to grow.
“It’ll be a big goose egg,” the 59-year-old producer said. “It’s a high risk business. We’re just thankful we have crop insurance.”
January was the only month since October that saw above normal rainfall. Through April the state has received nearly 90 percent of normal precipitation, but it hasn’t been enough to improve drought conditions.
About 98 percent of Texas is enduring some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday. Areas in the three worst dryness categories stand at about 74 percent.
Exceptional and extreme drought, the two worst stages in the map released weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center, lie over much of South and Southwest Texas and parts of West Texas.
But weather patterns are quite different this year than they were in 2011, giving experts hope that wildfire conditions won’t turn Texas back into a tinderbox this year. Gone is La Nina, the strong front in the Pacific that pushed through Texas two years ago and prompted a lack of precipitation, strong winds and unusually low humidity. The area of the Pacific that creates the pattern is now neutral.
Meanwhile, the forest service is pushing for more resources to handle massive blazes if and when they return. The agency has asked the state Legislature for an additional $27.2 million to hire about 90 more firefighters and buy equipment as a rapidly growing population coupled with drought has increased the threat of devastating fires. The House bill includes an additional $10 million; the Senate bill includes $27.2 million.
It has also asked the state to restore $32.6 million in grant money to help train, equip and insure volunteer fire departments. That money was cut during the last legislative session in 2011.
“What the end product is going to be I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate,” said Robby DeWitt, the agency’s associate director for finance and administration.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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