Risk of wildfires increasing for fall, winter

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The fire weather forecast is becoming more critical as neutral conditions this summer change to La Niña this fall. La Niña is a pattern known to bring drier, hotter than normal weather to Central Texas, with highest impacts in the coming colder months.

Tom Spencer, Predictive Services Department Head at Texas A&M Forest Service, is one of three experts who lead a webinar on Texas’ fire weather outlook at the end of July. He says La Niña has the tendency to “choke out moisture” in plants, due to both dry conditions and warm temperatures.

When grass “cures,” or turns from a lively green to a dull brown/yellow, it turns into fuel for wildfires. Steady rain chances are more important than high relative humidity once the grass cures: sticky air won’t stop dry grass from igniting, but damp ground will. Unfortunately, those rain chances look like they will be few and far between this fall and winter. The Climate Prediction Center says that hotter than normal, drier than normal conditions are likely from October 2016 through May 2017.

For those new to Texas, that means the coming spring could be a very different story than 2014 and 2015, where May and June flash floods have been damaging and fatal. The coming spring will be more like 2006, 2008 and 2011, where drought plagues the area and water resources dwindle.

The area of highest risk for wildfires does shift, depending on the season. For summer and fall, the highest risk for our area will be our metro counties, Travis, Williamson and Hays, along with counties east of I-35 that include Milam, Bastrop, Lee, Caldwell and Fayette. These counties are more flat, with higher annual rainfall totals that allow deciduous (live oak) and coniferous (pine) trees to grow. With summer heat and dry conditions, ground fuels can lead right up to trees. Area fire departments mitigate risk by trimming overgrowth. 

Counties to the west include San Saba, Lampasas, Blanco, Llano, Mason, Burnet and Gillespie, known as the Hill Country. The Hill County has a higher elevation than the coastal counties and in many cases bedrock is just a few inches below the soil. It’s harder for deep root systems to form in the Hill Country and it is more prone to erosion. Hill Country vegetation is mostly range grasses, which are also common in North and West Texas. Wind-driven grass fires are more probable with range grasses. According to Spencer, these fires get large fast, burn quick and can wipe out tens of thousands of acres.

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