AUSTIN (KXAN) — The First Warning Weather team is detecting warning signs in your forecast that may mean an active severe weather season, and an intensifying drought during an usually hot, dry summer.
Parts of Central Texas have recorded only half of normal rainfall over the past 90 days, leading to already-worsening soil drought. A historic Arctic outbreak last month knocked out power and water for millions of Texans, leaving many in unlivable conditions for days or weeks. A La Niña pattern consisting of cooler than normal ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific has been in place through the winter and is showing signs of weakening this spring.
These are all eerie similarities to the weather patterns during spring 2011 — a year that went on to bring disastrous drought, the hottest summer in Austin history and devastating wildfires.
Bastrop County Complex fire, September 2011
Meagan Webb lives with her husband and three children in Bastrop, but no longer in the same home as in 2011.
“It was just like a wall of flames,” Webb recalls. “Our refrigerator evaporated. There was nothing.”
Just days after Meagan left the hospital with her newborn daughter, she lost nearly everything.
“I remember us talking about how dry it was, and the kind of drought we had been experiencing,” Webb said. “My mother-in-law actually called me and told me that there was a fire. And I thought, ‘Well, OK, there’s a fire somewhere in the world.’ It didn’t occur to me that the fire was a street over from us.”
Meagan’s husband went out into their front yard to look and smell for signs of trouble, but their home was surrounded by dense pine forest, so he didn’t see anything.
Just then, a stranger pulled up in front of their house to warn them to pack their things and get ready to leave.
“We had never met this woman — I don’t think she was a neighbor,” Webb said. “She was visiting a friend, maybe.”
Because of this woman’s act of kindness, Meagan and her family had a 10-minute head start. To this day, they have not had the chance to thank her.
Meagan threw some things in the car, thinking they would be gone for a few hours. Police officers arrived.
“Drop what you’re doing and leave,” Webb recalls them saying.
On the way out of the neighborhood, Meagan saw what she described as a wall of flames that stretched from the ground to the sky, producing a curtain of thick, black smoke.
The few hours Meagan planned to be gone turned into a full week staying with nearby family. When she finally was able to return to her house, she found complete devastation.
“There’s nothing left,” Webb said. “There’s nothing to retrieve or salvage.”
The 2011 Bastrop fire claimed Meagan’s home. She explains that in a typical house fire, the fire burns for a short period of time, then firefighters extinguish it, leaving homeowners with belongings that are charred but that still offer some semblance of normalcy. In a wildfire like this one, days of burning at extraordinarily hot temperatures simply incinerate everything.
How did we get there?
The Bastrop fire was just the latest weather event in a year that would go down as one of our worst. So how did we get there?
Earlier that year in February, a three-day winter storm slammed Central Texas: 70 consecutive hours of subfreezing temperatures at Camp Mabry, rolling blackouts mandated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and broken pipes and water mains.
Later that spring came one of the deadliest tornado seasons in U.S. history.
“I’ve never seen such widespread destruction,” 27-year veteran storm chaser Jeff Mangum said. “Everywhere you looked, houses were completely swept off the foundation.”
Mangum witnessed first-hand the devastation left behind by the Joplin, Missouri EF-5 tornado — the strongest on the intensity scale.
“It’s an extremely rare thing to have a tornado that is that strong, that powerful, that destructive,” Mangum said. “That year had six of them alone.”
While spring 2011 did bring a few bouts of hail and severe weather to Central Texas, we also had a different problem developing — lack of rainfall.
“That set the stage for massive amounts of drought – extreme drought,” Paul Yura of the Austin-San Antonio National Weather Service office said. “The hottest summer on record for the Austin area.”
Austin’s temperature that summer was five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than average — an enormous margin in the world of meteorology.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, study the following year found one degree of that was attributed to climate change, while the other four were caused by a persistent La Niña pattern.
“La Niña is determined by the sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific,” explained Marybeth Arcodia, a PhD candidate at the University of Miami who studies the natural phenomenon.
La Niña patterns have far-reaching impacts on weather patterns, since the ocean and the air are closely intertwined. Arcodia says that La Niñas typically shift the jet stream north of Texas, taking the rain with it.
But when storms do come, research shows that we see more hail and tornadoes in the Central U.S., including in parts of Texas.
Later that year as it appeared La Niña was going away, it instead intensified again, extending our drought. This re-intensification is called a “double-dip.”
“The double-dip La Niña is definitely a documented phenomenon,” Arcodia said. “Seven out of the historical La Niñas have double-dipped” — meaning more of them do than don’t.
Today, La Niña is in a similar position, weakening after a moderate to strong winter event. And, the same series of weather events are occurring.
February 2021 brought a blast of Arctic air even colder than 2011 — the coldest that Austin has seen in 31 years. The cold snap and series of winter storms killed at least 57 Texans and left some without power and water for weeks.
At least 27 confirmed tornadoes hit the Deep South on St. Patrick’s Day, a sign that severe weather season is already ramping up.
In Texas, that storm system failed to deliver the soaking rainfall our soil desperately needs. Austin is missing one-third of its normal year-to-date rainfall as of late March, and parts of Central Texas have recorded less than half of their normal rainfall over the last six months.
Lieutenant Steve Gibbon, an Austin Fire Department wildland firefighter, is having flashbacks to 2011.
“We’re seeing similar drying trends,” Gibbon said. “Historically, we see an uptick in wildland fires during a La Niña cycle.”
His department started preparing for this fire season last year as they picked up on the impending La Niña.
“If we don’t get the rainfall that we need in the spring, summer is going to be an all-hands-on deck summer,” Gibbon said.
And, things have already been picking up for Gibbon and his team.
“Five, six, seven, eight,” Gibbon counted from his phone during our interview, tallying a total of 10 small fires in Austin on just one windy day last week.
The level of Lake Travis, which supplies our drinking water, is showing warning signs as well. At 23 feet below full elevation, Lake Travis is only at 68% capacity, and even lower than it was during March 2011. We would go on to lose 35 more feet off the level of the lake that summer, triggering tight water restrictions and leading to fights over water rights between local residents and downstream rice farmers.
“Everybody should really pay attention to the March, April and May rainfall,” Yura from the National Weather Service said. “The spring weather sets the stage. It sets the foundation for what kind of summer we’re probably going to have. We are better off right now. Everything is at least somewhat green right now … but it can turn the other way pretty quickly.”
While we wait and hope for the rain we need, Bastrop residents like the Webbs are ready for whatever Mother Nature may bring.
“We’ve experienced it before,” Webb said. “We know that it can happen. But, at the same time, know that you can survive.”
Current soil drought status in Central Texas is not as bad as it was during spring 2011. But all it takes is a couple of weeks of dry, sunny weather for that to change.
The NOAA Climate Prediction Center is officially calling for a 60% chance of La Niña weakening further and disappearing by June, but long-term pattern forecasts like this are notoriously difficult. In addition, Arcodia from the University of Miami reminds us that we are currently in what is referred to as the “spring predictability barrier,” which makes these kinds of predictions even more difficult than usual due to other background factors this time of year.
Even with their prediction of La Niña weakening further, the same forecasters at the Climate Prediction Center are calling for a high probability of hotter, drier than normal weather in Texas in their new three-month outlooks for April/May/June. If La Niña double-dips and intensifies again this summer or fall, it could mean even an even higher likelihood of drought intensification locally.
KXAN Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Rachel Garza contributed to this report.