(KXAN) — The Texas A&M Forest Service is working nine fires across the state Thursday evening and have raised the Wildland Fire Preparedness level to a five — the highest on the scale. This makes all of their statewide resources available to respond to fires.
With new summer outlooks from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecasting a hotter and slightly drier than normal season, part four of our ‘Summer Outlook’ series examines what may happen to drought and wildfire conditions in the coming months.
Lieutenant Steve Gibbon leads a five-engine team at the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division.
“We did the Canadian River Bottom fire which was 40,000 acres, Sandy Bottom Fire was another 8,000 acres,” Lt. Gibbon said, referring to his recent deployment to West Texas.
“We live in a beautiful place,” Lt. Gibbon said. “And those beautiful places come with the benefits and the risks, and fire is one of the risks we need to deal with.”
At Station 46 in south Austin, firefighters are packing up gear and making sure their trucks are ready as a record-hot month of May continues.
More on KXAN’s Summer Outlook series
- Dropping lake levels could mean water restrictions soon
- What will rare third consecutive year of La Niña mean for our summer weather?
- Does a hot, dry May guarantee a hot summer?
“Our vegetation is already behind in their moisture content,” Lt. Gibbon said.
You may notice that some vegetation around the area is still green even through this hot, dry month of May. Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Head of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, says that even if plants do not have a lot of moisture in them, they push out all the green they have in the springtime. What we are seeing now is essentially left over from that.
“This time of year when it starts getting hot and with the drought that we’ve had, they’re just basically in survival mode,” DeLong-Amaya said. “That dry foliage is going to be more flammable than plants that are hydrated and green.”
Drought conditions have already deteriorated significantly since January across Texas, and if we see a hotter, drier than normal summer, conditions will only get worse.
“If we don’t get this rain in the proper place at the proper time, this summer, those junipers could be exceptionally dry and receptive to fire,” Lt. Gibbon said. “So we could potentially have some pretty good fires in our area.”
Lake levels are also an important barometer of drought in Central Texas.
In a typical summer, the level of Lake Travis drops 9.4 feet, exposing more shoreline and underwater islands. In an abnormally dry summer, the lake would drop even more. Lake Travis is already at its lowest level since 2015.
This leaves many Central Texas hoping for one thing.
“Rain!” DeLong-Amaya said, “I wish for rain.”
The Austin Fire Department says that even if next week’s projected rain pans out, that is just going to aid grass growth which could fuel wildfire later in the summer season.
In the final installment of the First Warning Weather Team’s ‘Summer Outlook’ series on Friday, we examine one variable that could actually help with summer rainfall and heat prevention — an active Atlantic hurricane season.