Texas fires burn as much land in week as thousands did in years

The wildfires continuing to spread across the Texas Panhandle have already burned nearly 1.25 million acres in just over a week – nearly the same amount of land burned over the course of several years in the state.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there are four active wildfires in the Texas Panhandle at varying levels of containment. The largest of the blazes, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, is the biggest to ever form in the state and one of the largest-ever blazes in U.S. history at nearly 1,059,570 acres, and only 37% of it has been contained. The Magenta Fire, which started in Oldham County and reached 3,297 acres, is now 100% contained.

The damage has been exceptional with many losing their homes, farms and ranches. And while the final toll of the fires has yet to be determined, one thing is clear – this is one of Texas' fiercest wildfire battles.

The land that's been burned in just over a week in the Panhandle alone is nearly as much as what was burned across the entire state from 2017 to 2021, when the Texas A&M Forest Service says it responded to 3,682 wildfires that burned nearly 1.4 million acres.

During that time period, more than 40% of the fires occurred between September and January.

Fire weather conditions – which include high temperatures, dry air and strong winds – contributed to the spread of fires in recent days. And while a cold front swept through the area on Monday that officials believe will better help firefighters control the flames, the Forest Service says the threat is not over.

"Cooler temperatures and less wind will aid in the ongoing suppression efforts for active wildfires," the agency said Monday. "An underlying risk for new wildfires will continue in the Texas Panhandle and South Texas until spring green-up in occurs in the abundance of grass vegetation found in these regions."

Vegetation is a major contributor to the spread of wildfires. Dry grass was one of the fuels that added to the spread of the most recent flames.

Brad Smith, who retired in January after serving as the long-term head of the Texas agency's predictive services department, said in a 2021 press release that grasses hit by drought are "a very receptive medium for an accidental wildfire ignition."

"Dead grass will readily ignite under a wide range of weather conditions," he said. "... Wildfires burning in tall, thick stands of grass will burn hotter, spread faster and require more effort to extinguish."

The western areas of the Texas Panhandle are currently experiencing "abnormally dry" drought conditions, with the west border seeing "moderate conditions," according to the Texas Water Development Board. But even without widespread drought in the area, factors that create fire weather conditions also dry out vegetation, making it easier for fires to spread.

Climate change is making it easier for wildfires to develop, as rising global temperatures make local temperatures hotter and drier and increase the frequency of extreme weather more frequent and intense.

This map from Climate Central shows that Texas' High Plains have gained 32 additional days of fire prone weather since 1973. / Credit: Climate Central
This map from Climate Central shows that Texas' High Plains have gained 32 additional days of fire prone weather since 1973. / Credit: Climate Central

Scientists at Climate Central found that from 1973 to 2022, Texas' High Plains, including Amarillo, developed 32 additional fire weather days. These are days where low humidity, high heat and strong winds are more likely, with the low humidity making vegetation more prone to burning, warmer nighttime temperatures hampering ability to control flames and wind causing the fires to burn faster.

"Wildfire seasons are lengthening and intensifying, particularly in the West," the Climate Central report found, adding that Texas is among the states with some of the greatest increases in fire weather.

As of Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service's Amarillo station said that "neither elevated nor critical fire weather conditions are forecast" for the region through Wednesday. The station also said winds will remain at 20 mph or lower, with a chance of rain throughout the week, making conditions more favorable for firghtin the ongoing fires than in recent days.

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