Is the paradise lost on Maui a warning for Texas?

Lahaina’s destruction defies comprehension. There, paradise was lost as a rapidly-spreading wildfire, fueled by winds from a nearby hurricane, incinerated western Maui’s municipal hub. Absent warning, the fire spread across the Hawiian town with extraordinary rapidity, annihilating homes, businesses and cultural sites in its path and killing more than 100 people. 

The horrifying magnitude of the loss of life and property in Lahaina is a devastating reminder of the power of wildfire and the risk it can pose to urban, and not just rural, areas. Are Texas’ cities, where the majority of our state’s population lives, at risk of the same disaster that befell Lahaina?

The data suggests it’s a possibility.

First, a report commissioned by Texas 2036 and conducted by the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University concludes that Texas’ wildfire risk will increase over the next 20 years. Hotter temperatures and greater dryness will extend the length of the state’s fire season while expanding areas susceptible to wildfires.  

While climatic data points towards increasing wildfire risks, another analysis prepared by the First Street Foundation reveals that substantial portions of Texas, including many metropolitan areas, are at risk of wildfire damage. According to First Street’s data, nearly 9 million properties – 70% of all properties in this state – have some risk of being affected by a wildfire over the next 30 years.

Dive deeper into First Street’s data and you can see that many Texas cities are at risk.

The cities of Amarillo, Midland and Wichita Falls face extreme wildfire risks over the next 30 years according to First Street’s analysis. This means that substantial portions of these cities have a cumulative burn probability – or likelihood of a wildfire – in excess of 26% over the next 30 years.

Georgetown, College Station, New Braunfels and San Angelo, among others, face major wildfire risks, a cumulative burn probability between 6% and 14% between now and 2050. In Fort Worth, also in the major risk category, 185,820 properties, representing 63% of the city, are at risk of being affected by wildfire.

Texas is no stranger to wildfire risk. Last year was an exceptionally active year for fires. And the Bastrop Complex fire of 2011 remains etched in public memory.

But the scale of municipal devastation witnessed in Lahaina could affect some Texas towns.  The data indicates that this risk is real and growing, threatening not only life and communities’ viability but also home affordability in the form of higher insurance premiums or less competition in the homeowners’ insurance market as currently seen in California.

State and local policymakers have tools at their disposal to address growing wildfire risks. These include controlled burns, greater funding for fire suppression and other mitigation efforts.  

Earlier this year the Legislature almost approved a forward-thinking measure by Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, that would have tasked the Texas Forest Service with making recommendations on what could be done to mitigate Texas’ wildfire risks. While that bill did not pass, the opportunity remains to evaluate these risks and take action on appropriate recommendations. The horrible lessons from Lahaina cannot be ignored, and Texas should consider these risks seriously.

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