AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas is no stranger to wildfires with thousands of acres burned every year. Vegetation, weather conditions and drought all play a role in the intensity of wildfires and the year as a whole.
In 2022, severe drought, worsened by an ongoing La Niña pattern, resulted in one of the worst wildfire years since 2011. Many in Central Texas remember the devastating wildfire year of 2011 by the Bastrop Complex Fire, the most destructive wildfire in our state’s history, a fire that burned over 34,000 acres and killed 4 people in Bastrop County.
Although this year was not a repeat, Central Texas did see its fair share of smaller wildfires. One of the notable fires was the Rolling Pines Fire, a fire that started when a prescribed burn spread past its boundaries and scorched more than 800 acres of Bastrop State Park in January.
KXAN’s Kristen Currie spoke with Erin O’Connor, the Lead Public Information Officer with the Texas A&M Forest Service, to learn more about the 2022 Texas wildfire year. You can read the interview below to learn more.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: We know wildfires can happen any time of the year here in Texas. But we specifically want to focus on last year’s fire season. How did we do?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: The 2022 wildfire year was certainly the most significant year that we have had in the state of Texas since 2011. In 2022, we saw about 12,400 wildfires that burned a little more than 650,000 acres across the state. Multiple, multiple days of fire activity. Really busy for both local fire departments and the state of Texas, as far as response.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: That 12,400 – is that more than a normal year?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: Yeah, so that’s certainly above normal. Texas A&M Forest Service respond to about 1,400 wildfires a year on average. And last year, we were well over 2,000. And that’s just our organization. Every year is different.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: Was there a certain part of the state that saw more fire activity than the rest?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: It was it was honestly pretty widespread across the state. We experienced extreme drought in many parts of the state throughout the year. At one point there was 99% of the state that had some level of drought. We had 224 out of the 254 counties that experienced wildfire last year.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: As far as impacts go, people and property. How did we do there?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: We certainly had some very impactful wildfires. Overall, there was about 411 homes that were destroyed throughout the wildfire year. On the other hand, we saved about 8,200 homes. Some of those fires were burning very close to communities burned through communities. Unfortunately, we also had three deaths that were associated with wildfires and various injuries throughout the year. Most of those were heat related just with the conditions, but definitely a busy, impactful year.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: You had said this 2022 fire year was the most active since 2011. What was the primary cause of that?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: So we when we talk about wildfires and the conditions, we’re talking about the fire environment. So that is the weather, our conditions, the fuels on the landscape, the drought… everything kind of plays a part. And so last year, we saw again, that intensive drought that started back in the fall of 2021 and it just continued to intensify throughout the year. That was a big contributing factor to a lot of our conditions and the growth of the fires over the year. We had a La Nina year where we saw temperatures that were higher than normal. And we saw less precipitation than normal. So when we had those dry, hot, windy days, with vegetation that was maybe tall but dormant or dry, it was just the perfect environment to support wildfire growth if there was any type of ignition.
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: In the winter or spring, we have what we call our dormant fire season. So when we experience those hard freezes, the grass is what we call freeze cured. That is typically the driver of our dormant fire season. When it was frozen over the New Years timeframe, it just became more fuel for wildfire.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: Anything else that stands out to you about last year?
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: I think just the amount of support we had for the state of Texas. So in addition to the thousands of local firefighters and fire departments that were responding every day, we were able to bring in almost 4,500 personnel from other states across the nation. We had people from 47 different states, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC, just tons of support for the state of Texas. And it was just kind of amazing to see people show up for us.
Erin O’Connor, Texas A&M Forest Service: I think people are becoming more aware that Texas is a wildfire state, we do have a wildfire issue. And it is something that our homeowners and landowners need to be aware of and take precautions.