Texas, Burning: State Wildfire Risk to Increase

The Fourth of July sparked more than celebrations this past holiday weekend. Hot temperatures and drought conditions provided a combustible mix as fireworks ignited hundreds of wildfires across Texas. In North Texas, Fort Worth and Dallas fire departments extinguished nearly 500 brush and grass fires while Central Texas fire crews responded to about 150 fires, including brush and grass. And celebratory pyrotechnics likely ignited fires in Houston, Killeen, and elsewhere in Texas.

News of these wildfires comes on the heels of bigger fires from earlier this year. In March, well before the usual fire season, the massive Eastland Complex Fire scorched homes, pastures, and livestock. Other conflagrations burned thousands of acres in West and Central Texas in May.

Unfortunately, the fires we have seen this year are a sign of what is to come: Two recent studies point to growing wildfire risks across Texas.

Last year, Texas 2036 and the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University released a report on extreme weather trends in Texas. The report finds that as Texas gets hotter and drier our fire season will grow longer, with areas of the state susceptible to wildfires expanding. In particular, Texas’ fire risk will expand from west to east as fuels — grass, brush, and trees — become drier in a warmer climate.

Another report released by First Street Foundation in May corroborates our study’s findings. The report, Fueling the Flames, assesses how many properties are at risk of wildfire damage over the next 30 years. Looking at First Street’s data for Texas, currently 4.5 million properties, about 38% of all properties, have a 1% chance of being in a wildfire over the next three decades. By year 2052, however, the total number of properties with the same chance of wildfire destruction increases by nearly 40% to 6.2 million.

First Street attributes this increase in statewide wildfire risk to higher temperatures, drought and dry conditions, and greater fuel availability in the form of growing and drier vegetation.

In addition to its report, First Street released an interactive map that allows users to gauge local wildfire risks. According to the data, Amarillo, Midland, San Angelo, Odessa, and Wichita Falls face major to severe wildfire risks over the next 30 years. The cities of Laredo, Tyler, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin, Conroe, and El Paso face moderate risks.

As the First Street report notes, wildfire risk threatens communities’ economic stability, natural resources, and quality of life. And responses to wildfire incidents can be costly for local, state, and federal governments.

State and local policymakers have policy interventions to address this growing wildfire risk. These include prescribed burns and other wildfire risk mitigation measures. And if the risk continues to increase, then state legislators may need to appropriate more funds to the Texas Forest Service for greater fire suppression efforts. In the meantime, Texans can take it easy on the fireworks.

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